A month ago Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United went to the Etihad and beat Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. You probably heard about it. It was a pretty big deal, coming just days after Solskjaer had also defeated José Mourinho and everyone was talking about it.
Solskjaer didn’t just beat Guardiola that day. He out-coached him. United were tactically brilliant right from the get go. They changed their defensive look that day, moving from a pressing 4-2-3-1 to a much deeper 4-3-3.
On the attack they pushed their forwards, specifically Marcus Rashford, extremely wide to take advantage of City fullback Kyle Walker who plays narrow and pushes deep on the attack. It was Walker’s vacated space that United targeted to start their devastating counter attacks.
When City were building up play, United’s forwards gave a half press that was designed to do one thing: force City to play down the left hand side, because that’s where Aaron Wan-Bissaka is.
Pep Guardiola saw all this, and Pep Guardiola does not forget. If he didn’t read the newspapers, he heard the pundits saying he was out-coached by Solskjaer. Pep Guardiola was not going to let that happen again.
A month later Pep rolled into Old Trafford and saw his squad steamroll United to a 3-1 win, a scoreline that frankly flattered United. It would be easy to say this was just a simple case of a Manchester City squad made up of world class players just cruising against a Manchester United side that was depleted by injuries (missing Paul Pogba, Scott McTominay, Harry Maguire, and Anthony Martial).
But that’s not what happened here.
No. What City did to United was meticulously planned right down to the most minute detail. What Pep Guardiola wanted to do was premeditated. He saw where United’s weaknesses were and where he was going to strike. It wouldn’t be an all out blitz; he was going to do it with almost surgical precision to ensure United had no way of stopping it.
(Is it harsh that I just used a bunch of words typically used to describe crimes? Probably. But we’re talking about a City manager here and I’m trying to balance it out for all the praise I’m about to give him.)
Just like in December, United wanted Wan-Bissaka to stick to Raheem Sterling like glue. This was apparent right from the get-go, with Daniel James dropping deep to give United that same defensive 4-3-3 shape they had at the Etihad.
Pep does not want this. A month ago Sterling and Wan-Bissaka battled it out throughout the match with the United defender coming out on top. Pep wants Sterling away from Wan-Bissaka.
There are two ways to do that: you can get Wan-Bissaka to move away from Sterling, or you could get Sterling to move away from Wan-Bissaka. The latter seems easier especially since you don’t have much control over the former.
Pep managed to do both.
To understand the first way of doing it we have to understand how City play, specifically their buildup play. City are patient with their buildup, almost painfully patient at times. In this scenario it looks as if they’re just futzing around with the ball, passing it for the sake of passing it.
But City are never passing it for the sake of passing. Take a look at this clip of Kyle Walker on Sky Sports explaining how Pep Guardiola wants his team to play. Fast forward to the 3:50 mark where he explains the purpose behind City’s short passing.
Every pass, even the short ones, is followed by a movement. Those movements force the defenders to move and it creates space. Eventually if you do it enough, you open up the space that you want to attack.
In the sequence above, City look like they’re just passing it back to Claudio Bravo to alleviate pressure, but what they’re doing is so much more. By going back to Bravo they invite United’s forwards to get forward and establish their press. Here’s the next part of that sequence.
Bravo gives the ball to Rodri, drawing Fred forward and out of position. Rodri immediately passes back to Nicolas Otamendi, forcing Daniel James to come close him down. Now, Otamendi simply has to pass it wide to his fullback Benjamin Mendy, and guess who has to come all the way forward?
Which means, guess where Aaron Wan-Bissaka isn’t? Next to Raheem Sterling.
Mendy sends it back to Otamendi, Otamendi takes one touch before firing a long pass right at Sterling. Boom.
Since it’s much harder to get Wan-Bissaka to leave Sterling, Pep also had a plan to get Sterling away from him. He changed his formation.
Guardiola left both the recently returned Sergio Aguero and the fully fit Gabriel Jesus on the bench, deploying an attacking team that didn’t feature a center forward. Off the ball, City were essentially lined up in a 4-4-2 with Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva up top. In possession, that 4-4-2 became much more of a 4-2-4.
By not having a center forward on the pitch, all four of City’s attackers could play anywhere across the front line, and they did. The interchanging allowed Sterling to move around the pitch, getting free of Wan-Bissaka, who couldn’t follow him to the middle. It allowed Sterling to be a menace in United’s box, and he frankly should have scored a few times.
Most importantly, the formation allowed Pep to attack United where they are their weakest. Pep knew this would be the case coming in. He knew Harry Maguire was hurt. He knew United were going to want to play on the counter and he probably saw that against Arsenal, Nemanja Matić doesn’t allow them to do that (author’s note: I swear a post on this is coming) therefore he’d be getting Andreas Pereira in midfield.
He identified exactly where United were vulnerable,
And he set out to attack it.
It started with the press. From the start United were determined to play out from the back. That’s no surprise, they’ve been doing this all year. Pep was content to let them do that, but on his terms.
City are fine with David de Gea and Phil Jones having the ball. Victor Lindelöf is very good at playing line breaking passes out from the back, but considering there’s no one who can drop deep, receive those passes, and hold up play the way Martial can on the pitch, it’s not such a worry. They’re okay with Lindelöf having the ball too.
Where they don’t want the ball to go is out on the wings to the fullbacks, or to Fred dropping in.
As soon as Fred gets the ball, Ilkay Gundogan is all over him, forcing him to go back towards De Gea. De Gea pumps it long, which is exactly what City want, because United don’t have anyone on the field that can win headers.
What they don’t want is Fred to have the ball, because of all the players back there, Fred is the one that can be dangerous. He’s the one that can pick out a great pass to start a break.
Or he can start a break himself.
No, City don’t want the ball at Fred’s feet. They want the ball at the feet of Phil Jones. And when the ball goes to Jones, that’s when they can spring into attack.
Now, this pressing could still be done with a center forward on the field, so why play without one? That was done to attack United right through the middle.
With City not having two attacking midfielders up top, but dropping off or drifting wide, United’s defense was completely lost. Remember when Guardiola used Leo Messi as a false-9 in the Champions League final and confused the hell out of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić? Messi would drop into space and they didn’t know whether they should follow him or not.
This was eerily reminiscent of that. United’s midfielders and defenders constantly looked confused. They didn’t know who was responsible for whom. And for good reason.
Just look at how City came and attacked them.
Look at the beginning of that clip. Kyle Walker carries the ball in, but, importantly, Riyad Mahrez stays wide. That forces Brandon Williams to stay wide as well. Fred can close the space, but with Kevin de Bruyne right behind him, he has to be wary of a pass too.
As Walker runs, he pulls up just so slightly, forcing Fred to stop for a split second to cut off the pass to De Bruyne. That second is all Walker needs, He sprints right into the space opened up between Williams and Jones. Williams can peel off to make a play, but by then it’s too late. De Bruyne is uncovered, Walker’s run isn’t being followed, United are all over the place and Sterling gets open for a good shot in the middle.
City’s first goal came from a very similar sequence.
Mahrez stays wide creating a gap between Williams and Phil Jones. Walker runs into that gap and when Fred closes him down, he drops it back to Bernardo.
This creates confusion between Fred and Jones. One needs to stay on the run of Walker the other needs to step out onto Bernardo. Considering Fred is running with Walker and Jones is facing Bernardo it should be Jones. He doesn’t do it, causing Fred to be late closing him down. Jones ends up in no man’s land, and Bernardo hit’s a worldie, which frankly is exactly the type of goal United have been giving up this year.
It’s bad defending, but it’s also lucky. Especially because at the time, United were actually playing well.
First 15 minutes United were the better team. Weren't dominant but better. But that's the thing about City, no matter how poor they're playing you give them an inch... they'll hurt you #MUFC #MCFC— Pauly Kwestel (@pkwestel) January 7, 2020
That’s the important thing to remember here. United were playing well. But remember how I said Pep identified the three spots where they were vulnerable?
That’s exactly where City were going to attack United, and they were going to be damn efficient about it.
The second goal starts with an innocent long ball directed at Lindelöf, which is the weakest part of Lindelöf’s game but he actually wins a lot more of these than fans give him credit for.
Lindelöf wins this one too, albeit not really towards anyone. He’s trying to get it to Andreas but he sends it a little wide. Andreas of course doesn’t do him any favors by not even trying to get that ball.
The loose ball falls to Gundogan, who is immediately pressured by Andreas. Sort of. I guess? I’m really not sure what Pereira is trying to do here. What kind of angle is he even taking?!
It’s at this moment where City’s brilliant forwards strike again. Take a look.
With Williams playing narrow, De Bruyne takes off towards the right corner. He’s not really open, given Williams’ position Gundogan would have to play the ball so wide to get it to De Bruyne that it wouldn’t make sense.
But what that run does is force Phil Jones to run with De Bruyne, opening a whole lotta space for Riyad Mahrez to run into...
If you thought that was bad, wait until you see goal number three.
The third goal actually starts with a nice bit of midfield play by Pereira.
This allows United to launch an attack and get men forward.
The attack is ruined by a poor Daniel James layoff that doesn’t quite find Marcus Rashford. With United sending men forward to attack, they’re left pretty vulnerable at the back.
Trying to snuff out a counter attack before it begins, which is most certainly not the right thing to do in this situation, Lindelöf comes running in and gets it all wrong. I’m not sure why he slides, maybe because he realized he was so late that he wasn’t even going to contest the header and didn’t want to foul? That’s what it seems like but if you’re caught that high up the pitch, it’s probably a good idea to just take the foul!
Lindelöf loses the first ball and the second ball falls to De Bruyne. With one touch he’s able to take Jones out of the play, and suddenly United have no one back.
Eventually the ball falls to De Bruyne going one on one with Jones and frankly, did we really expect this to end any differently?
The critics will obviously point their fingers at Solskjaer but how much could the manager be blamed? A different manager would still have to pick from the same group of players. A different manager still wouldn’t be able to call upon Pogba or McTominay in midfield.
The Pereira-Fred midfield lacks a spine and physicality, but against City you could argue that being able to play the ball quickly is more important than physicality. Matić on the pitch makes it hard to counter attack (author’s note: again, this post is coming), and while you, me, and everyone else would prefer James Garner to Andreas Pereira, he just returned from injury Monday night. Both he and Dylan Levitt were unavailable.
Nevertheless this stat remains very real.
Manchester United have conceded 32 in all competitions this year. That's one goal every 89.5 minutes.— Pauly Kwestel (@pkwestel) January 7, 2020
Andreas and Fred as a midfield pair have played 208 minutes and United have conceded 7 goals. That's 21.9% of the goals conceded in 7.2% of the minutes... #MUFC https://t.co/2Q03o5ARui
It’s true that United had no clue how to deal with City not playing with a center forward. That is certainly a coaching issue, but it would be wrong to say that Solskjaer was lost by the tactic. At halftime he made adjustments and United were able to handle City’s tactics in the second half. United controlled the game after the break.
The injuries were always going to compromise #MUFC's team today. City are one of the best sides on the planet & the gulf between us & them is obvious. BUT that was a top 2nd half display. Guts & determination. Our lack of creativity remains the biggest issue. Signings are needed.— Rob Blanchette (@_Rob_B) January 7, 2020
Not to defend Solskjaer, especially because of MU's inability to effectively play with the ball, but yesterday he made good adjustments vs Pep's plan: central overload without striker. Start in 4411 -› switch 451, then 2nd half's diamond, slowing down City quite well centrally.— István Beregi (@SteveBeregi) January 8, 2020
The move certainly caught United off guard but upon seeing it, Solskjaer knew exactly what to do. City rarely play without a center forward and they never do so when they have both Aguero and Jesus available. Why should anyone have expected that look? It’s not hard to see why United didn’t prepare for it.
At the end of the day, let’s just call it for what it was. Guardiola lost to Solskjaer last month. He was coming for revenge. He got it.