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The Great Red Debate: Where did United go wrong against Man City?

In this week’s Great Red Debate, Ryan and Andi discuss United’s derby defeat to Manchester City.

Manchester United v Manchester City - Premier League Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Ryan: The Manchester derby took place on Saturday (10 September) amid a level of hype unlike anything we’ve seen for an early-season clash. Most of the attention was on the managers, José Mourinho and Pep Guardiola, who were resuming the rivalry they’d kick-started in Spain six years ago.

The pre-match handshake between the pair was respectful and, to the disappointment of the myriad TV cameras filming it, a bit of an anticlimax.

But the game itself was pretty thrilling. The visitors, Manchester City, dominated most of the first half, racing to a two-goal lead as Manchester United struggled to keep pace.

Then, thanks in no small part to a goalkeeping blunder by the debuting Claudio Bravo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic pulled one back for United before the break. And, with a couple of personnel changes and a tactical switch at half-time, the home side found themselves on the front foot after the re-start.

The back-and-fourth encounter ended with City holding on for a vital 2-1 win, ending United’s unbeaten start to the Premier League season, while making Guardiola’s men odds-on to win the title with some bookmakers.

As evidenced by their 60 percent share of possession and six shots on target to United’s three, City were the better side and worthy of the three points, but the Red Devils had their chances to get something from the game.

So where did United go wrong? And what would you have liked them to have done differently?

Andi: It seems clear that Mourinho made a fairly major mistake in his team selection. He explained before the game that Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Jesse Lingard had been brought into the team to counteract the threat of City's fullbacks tucking into midfield, and they didn't, which threw the whole shape of the team out of whack, meant Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini were swamped in the middle, and left all sorts of holes all over the place. It wasn't just that they were playing badly, it's that they were playing badly and pointlessly.

But while he's been criticised for making such adjustments — a Manchester United manager! In a big game! Paying attention to the opposition! The horror! — by people who have quickly forgotten that Sir Alex Ferguson used to do the same thing quite a lot, the really disappointing thing was that this mistake wasn't fixed until half-time, and that it was supported by a number of poor individual errors and an all-round lack of sharpness and intensity. For all that City played very well, the two goals hinged just as much on specific defensive mistakes by Daley Blind and Eric Bailly for the first, then Blind for the second, and more generally on United's midfield allowing City to stroll around unimpeded, as they did Mourinho's tactical misjudgement. A little less of that, and United might have got away with it.

We saw in the first half of the second half — it's a game of four halves, after all — that United looked much better in something like a 4-3-3: Ander Herrera and Marcus Rashford offered much more than Lingard and Mkhitaryan, and Antonio Valencia started to find some space down the right. And so the second most frustrating thing for me was that United, presumably tempted by Bravo's well-buttered fingers, went too longball, too quickly. Yes, Ibrahimovic is very tall. But it all became far too predictable.

Ryan: I agree, the selection was wrong and so was the tactical approach, but the biggest mistake was not addressing it sooner.

Kevin De Bruyne was finding space in between Fellaini and Pogba far too often and easily, and with the full-backs practically pinned to the touchlines by Raheem Sterling and Nolito, he was able to slot passes into the inside channel.

The fact that Pogba continues to be played in a double pivot, especially against a side with the attacking potency of City, strikes me as an obvious misuse of his talents. He was shackled by his defensive duties, and they are duties he’s not that well adept at carrying out.

The switch to a midfield three at half-time changed the game. Herrera plugged the gap that De Bruyne and David Silva were continually exploiting in the first half, while allowing Pogba and Fellaini to play higher up the pitch. As ruthless as it may be, this change should have been made after 20 minutes.

Also, I must admit I was a little disappointed by Mourinho’s post-match comments. He said he accepted the blame for the defeat, then, in the next breath, unloaded most of it onto players who he said "were below the level" and that "sometimes players disappoint managers".

I thought that, while no player had an especially good game, no-one bar Mkhitaryan and Lingard was especially bad. I feel like the tactical errors of the first half were the major contributing factors in the defeat. The blaming of players feels a little bit like a return to the Mourinho of a year ago, as the wheels came off his second Chelsea reign.

Am I right to be a little concerned by this? Or do you think his criticism was fair and will serve as a timely kick up the backside to the players?

Andi: This is the most important question in terms of the rest of the season: losing a game is one thing; losing a dressing room is another. What I thought was quite interesting about his post-match comments was that he balanced the strong criticism of those players that he felt were poor — not just limited to Mkhitaryan and Lingard, but Bailly with his "first-station passing" and various unnamed others — with some strong praise for the play and more importantly the attitudes of "brilliant" Rashford and "phenomenal" Herrera.

That suggests to me that his criticisms were intended less as an attempt to throw his players under the badly-parked bus and more as a chance to establish some standards. To say: this is not a club and these are not the games where you can play within yourself, where you can lose focus on your instructions, where you can let the occasions daunt you. And he's right in that and it needs to be processed and understood by the players, even if we might prefer it to have been expressed behind closed doors.

Of course, the spectre of last season hangs over everything he says. For perhaps the first time in his career, we can listen to Mourinho say something and genuinely wonder if it will work. Which is fascinating, if also quite concerning from a United point of view. But with an eye towards his post-match comments, what are you expecting him to change for Feyenoord and Watford, two potentially tricky away games?

Ryan: Well, this is going to be a very interesting indicator of how seriously he is planning to take the Europa League this season.

Does he make wholesale changes and bring in the likes of Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones, and Matteo Darmian, who’ve all be starved of minutes? Or does he make a few tweaks to the line-up we’ve seen most often this season?

I think there will be a lot of changes made, but I’m hoping the side will still resemble something close to the first-choice XI. Mourinho has already hinted that Rashford will start, which I think is absolutely the right decision. But aside from that, I’d like to see two or three more squad players given a run out — maybe Memphis Depay in attack, Morgan Schneiderlin in midfield and one of the aforementioned defenders at the back — alongside the players who have already featured regularly.

But what I am most interested to see is whether Mourinho persists with the 4-2-3-1 formation that saw us caught out on Saturday.

I have been banging on about this for a while now, and I know I’m not the only one, but I strongly believe that the players we have are far better suited to 4-3-3 than they are to the current set-up, and Saturday was evidence of that.

That being said, I think Mourinho saw the switch to 4-3-3 in the derby as a way to solve a specific problem, rather than being the dawning of a new tactical direction, so I expect the 4-2-3-1 to remain for the time being.

Andi: I think you're right that we won't see 4-3-3 just yet and think there are two reasons for that. The first is the identity of the deepest-lying midfielder: United's options there are Fellaini and Schneiderlin, then behind them Blind and then maybe Jones. Maybe. And even though I'd like to see Schneiderlin given the chance to prove himself up to the job, none of those seem like a player that a manager as security-conscious as Mourinho would be happy leaving as the defensive cover. Those N'Golo Kanté rumours make a lot of sense.

The second is that there is no obvious place in that formation for Wayne Rooney. But then at some point, United are going to have to shift from being a team built around Rooney to a team built around Pogba. Perhaps the longer-term impact of this game might be the beginning of that process. United certainly didn't go breaking transfer records to see their shiny new midfielder get swamped in the derby.

United's next Big Game — in the Sky Sports sense — comes on 17 October, away at Liverpool. A week after that, they go to Chelsea. With three games in the league and two in Europe to fix things up, what do you think United's team at Anfield will look like?

Ryan: The "think" and the "hope" are some way apart at the moment for me. I think the line-up will be pretty similar to what it is now, with maybe better protection given to Pogba, so perhaps Fellani won’t be the midfield anchor.

But my hope for the long-term is that the switch to 4-3-3 is made, and we are weaned off the need to include Rooney in every game. For me that would look something like: De Gea; Valencia (although I still hold out hope that Darmian can come good), Bailly, Blind/Smalling, Shaw; Herrera, Schneiderlin, Pogba; Martial/Rashford, Ibrahimovic, Mkhitaryan.

Do you think there will be much upheaval over the next month? And how different do you want the side to look, going forward?

Andi: I don't think we're quite at the tearing up the plans stage quite yet, and as irritating and disappointing as the result and performance were, I don't think the game was quite the disaster that would warrant such a response. So I don't think we'll see much of a change in terms of the plan: Rooney will continue as captain and focal point, which more or less necessitates some flavour of 4-2-3-1, and Pogba will continue to be half of that 2.

But plenty of the places in that team are up for grabs. If we say that David De Gea, Luke Shaw, Bailly, Pogba, Rooney and Ibrahimovic are pretty much nailed on starters, that leaves half the outfield spots up for grabs, and the Europa League will give plenty of squad members the chance to stake a claim of some sort. My ideal team looks a lot like yours, but I think the team at Anfield will be those six plus whichever of the various alternatives impress over the next few games. Let's guess at: De Gea; Valencia, Bailly, Smalling, Shaw; Pogba, Herrera; Rashford, Rooney, Mata; Ibrahimovic.

Having said that, a Pogba-Herrera midfield two doesn't feel very Mourinho. Particularly not away from home. It really is going to be a very interesting few weeks.