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Tactical Analysis (Part 2 of 2): The perils of man-marking on set-pieces, the marauding Zabaleta, & Park vs. Yaya

The perils of man-marking on corners...
The perils of man-marking on corners...

In case you missed Part 1 of our tactical review, here it is. In that part, I solely discussed Manchester United's approach during Monday night's derby. In this final part our analysis, I will discuss everything else that I felt was tactically significant in the match.

City's approach

Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini elected to go with his more typical 4-2-2-2ish system rather than a 4-2-3-1 one that has been used on occasion this season. Joe Hart was the goalkeeper while Pablo Zabaleta was preferred to Micah Richards at right-back. The rest of the back four consisted of Vincent Kompany, Joleon Lescott, and Gael Clichy. Yaya Toure sat deeper in this 4-2-2-2ish system than he likely would have in a 4-2-3-1 and he was partnered by Gareth Barry in the center of the park. Samir Nasri and David Silva were nominal wide players that looked to come inside while Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez were the duo up front -- the latter as a secondary striker.

Park is tasked with man-marking Toure

I touched on this briefly in Part 1, but Park Ji-sung was chosen with the clear intent so that he could man-mark Toure -- this isn't always something that you see in the modern game as zonal marking is prevalent now. In cagey affairs, the tactical tinkering by managers is often magnified. The South Korean has obviously been beneficial to the club for his energy and stamina over the years but he's also a tactically intelligent player. Quite often, his role is to duel with a marauding full-back and less often, his positioning is of a 'number 10' but rather than play that role in a traditional sense, he's often utilized in that space so that he can nullify an opposing deep-lying playmaker. The role he played in harassing Andre Pirlo over two legs a few seasons ago in the Champions League is one of the great individual performances by anyone at the club during Park's time at Old Trafford.

Park's task in the derby was somewhat similar to the role that he played in marking Pirlo in that he was tasked to track a relatively deep-lying midfielder. However, the challenge this time was very different. Pirlo is a genius in a technical sense and his range of passing may be only rivaled by Paul Scholes and Xavi, but he isn't any sort of physical presence. Park's industry was vital in shutting him down. Toure is a solid technical player but his passing range from deep isn't much of a concern for opposing clubs -- not that it's poor by any means but it's not enough to be something that requires opponents to gameplan around. Instead though, Toure is a physically-imposing presence that can carry the ball from deep and have an effect by being a constant driving force.

Park did decently well to force Toure into simple passes in deep positions and he fought valiantly with the Ivorian any time he lumbered forward. The South Korean certainly didn't shut down Toure but he did contain him to a degree. The influence of the City midfielder grew after Park was substituted off in the 58th minute. The context of the match had changed in the final half-hour, and Toure was positioned higher during the waning moments of it, but it should be noted that Park essentially did his tactical job. 'Three Lungs' is certainly out of form right now and this was clearly evident by his poor contribution in attack but it was a valiant effort from a player who didn't look to have his usual match fitness.

Giggs' narrow positioning and Zabaleta's marauding

I touched on Giggs as well in Part 1 and explained how he was essentially an auxiliary central-midfielder when United were in possession and that it was actually Park that broke forward as part of a front three on counterattacks with Wayne Rooney and Nani. This narrow positioning was an issue though when United were out of possession because while Park was tasked with marking Toure, Giggs often failed to shuttle back near enough to the touchline to track City's right-back Zabaleta. The Argentine motored forward all night into free space and he was a continual threat because he helped create overloads without Giggs supporting Evra.

With Michael Carrick shielding his back four, United had a comfortable 5 v 4 situation against City's front four and with Park and Scholes accounting for Toure and Barry, they were well covered in midfield as well. However, City's narrow front four and United's compact and narrow defensive shape allowed for space in the wide areas in attack. Nani worked hard to track back on Clichy but Giggs' narrow positioning -- and perhaps relative lack of pace and energy -- didn't allow him to do the same on Zabaleta. The energetic Argentine was a terror all night marauding down the right touchline into open space and if City were to score a goal from open play in the match, it's may have occurred though this route.

United simply didn't need a narrowly positioned player like Giggs in this space but if manager Sir Alex Ferguson felt it necessary for the counterattack -- especially with Park tracking Toure -- a player with more mobility should have been tasked with the role. The 37-year-old's experience was certainly trusted for such a nervy encounter but perhaps the legs of a Tom Cleverley, in combination with his passing ability, may have been better suited for this tactical role. Injured and ill -- but energetic -- players like Anderson and Darren Fletcher were certainly missed. Fergie's options were limited for the very specific tactics he wanted to deploy.


United were clearly outclassed in open play (the pressure they absorbed was somewhat by design though) but the deciding factor in the match occurred when Kompany slipped Chris Smalling for a headed-goal on a corner. It was unfortunate for the obvious reason in that the error may have cost United the title, but it was also sad because Smalling was otherwise very good on the night. The youngster certainly made an error on the play when he initially took a step in front of Kompany and it also allowed the duo of Rio Ferdinand and Lescott cut him off so that Kompany could get free for his towering header. This is the peril of man-marking on set-pieces though ... sure, that tactic allows for blame to be easily passed when a mistake occurs but is it actually the best way to defend set-pieces? The tiniest of errors can be costly. I thought the brilliant Jonathan Wilson made a great point on Twitter just after the goal was scored:

"Why are people so obsessed with man-to-man offering accountability? Surely more important to get it right than to know who to blame?"

Who cares about blame when there may be a better way of doing things in the first place. Of course, zonal marking has its faults as well but this particular writer would argue that it's a better approach to defend with on set-pieces.

It's also worth noting though how poor City were in defending corners. I can think of three occasions when they were unprepared for a short pass to be played into the box and they were simply fortunate that United didn't make more of their opportunities. Managers and coaches tend to emphasize set-piece tactics more than fans generally do -- there's a reason for this, they can be the margins that decides games and titles. Ultimately, that may have happened at the Eithad on Monday night.

2nd half adjustments

Danny Welbeck coming on for Park in the 58th minute switched United's shape to a 4-4-1-1 and with United needing an equaliser, the game predictably opened up a little. Fergie's side were now defending with two compact banks of four but they had more attacking power with Rooney now playing in behind of Welbeck. Mancini responded by bringing on Nigel de Jong for Tevez and this switched City's shape from a 4-2-2-2 to a more structured 4-2-3-1. This also meant Toure moving higher and in behind Aguero with de Jong and Barry sitting in front of City's back four. More substitutions were made but the last one that resulted in a shape change was when Richards came on for Silva in the 82nd minute as this resulted in City playing in a 3-4-3/5-2-3 shape.

The only thing interesting in a tactical sense about these changes is that United became more proactive while searching for an equaliser and City became more reactive while trying to preserve their lead. Ironically though, it was City that showed United how to play on the counterattack. The home side kept their shape in the back but looked dangerous on the break and particularly though Toure when he carried ball forward with his powerful runs. This link, or carrier between the midfield and attack, was missing from United's own impotent counterattack. Quite honestly, United were fortunate that City didn't add on a second or third goal. Mancini's tactics for the final half-hour were reasonable -- as were Fergie's initial tactics for the match -- but 'noisy neighbours' simply executed. United did not.


This derby was rubbish. C'mon Newcastle!