Just under four minutes into Sunday’s Manchester Derby NBC Sports commentator Arlo White started talking about how Pep Guardiola was currently behaving on the touchline.
“Pep Guardiola in the technical area down beneath us I’ve just been watching him for the last 30 seconds or so chaps and he is very irritated with something I think he’s trying to get a message across to his team about something.”
On my couch at home I turned to my wife and said, “I bet you he’s trying to get Bernardo Silva to attack the space left open behind Scott McTominay.”
Pep Guardiola and his Manchester City is all about space. Controlling it, defending it, dividing it, creating it, and attacking it. If he notices that there is a space on the pitch to be exploited he sure as hell is going to want his team to exploit it.
Less than four minutes into the match Pep had noticed something that he wanted his team to exploit. He was acting frantically because this issue was so obvious that you didn’t need to be on the level of Pep Guardiola to spot it. If you were paying any attention at all it was right in front of your eyes. And if it’s that obvious than surely Manchester United’s coaches would see it too and fix it. Better take advantage before that happens.
It probably wasn’t intentional, but based on everything else that had transpired to that point, United were essentially taking a massive spotlight and shining it on this issue.
It started when the team news was released. Just like many people my eyebrows were raised a bit when I saw United’s starting XI. Given the forced(?) absences, there wasn’t much choice in the players but how were they going to line up? There were several different options.
This could have been a regular 4-2-3-1 with Paul Pogba on the left wing, Jadon Sancho on the right, and Anthony Elanga up top. It could have been a 4-4-2 diamond/4-3-3 with Pogba in a left central midfield role and Bruno Fernandes operating as a false-9.
Those were the two most likely options but all that changed when United came out for the opening kick off and Paul Pogba was lined up very much on the right side.
Now this could just be a decoy for the opening kick or it could be part of a set play (lol imagine United running anything other than “centerback kicks it deep” off the kickoff) but it certainly meant all eyes were going to be on United for opening few minutes to see how they set up.
Very quickly it looked like we got our answer. United were going to be in a regular 4-2-3-1 with Fernandes playing as the striker and Pogba playing as the number 10.
Eight seconds and a few passes later though, it looks different. Pogba has become the furthest forward with Bruno easily dropping back to the number 10 spot. Simple rotation and nothing to see there. But McTominay has now pushed up into the next line, making this a 4-1-4-1, and not a particularly good one as there’s a tremendous amount of space between the line of four and Fred behind them.
When we roll the videotape we can (kinda) see why this happened. McTominay seems to be very interested in what Bernardo Silva is doing and doesn’t want to give him too much space.
A few seconds later we’re back to a 4-2-3-1 but still a little disjointed as McTominay is sticking to Silva almost like glue.
Just about one minute in, that seems to be the plan. Depending on where Silva is will depend on whether United are in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-1-4-1.
But that 4-1-4-1 is still leaving Fred with acres to cover in the midfield, and typically two City players on either side of him to worry about. It’s not particularly ideal, and we quickly see Victor Lindelof step up to help him out there.
Great now this is somewhat well defended with the caveat that United are essentially playing a 3-2-4-1 with a huge gap between the Fred-Lindelof line and the rest of the midfield. It’s easily exploitable and that’s probably why you’ve never heard of a 3-2-4-1 formation. Whatever Ralf Rangnick’s plan for this match was, I can most assure you it was definitely NOT this.
All that transpired over the first minute of the match. But it’s the first minute, people are a little over excited and sometimes take a step or two out of position before settling down. Let’s give it a bit more time, but then just 30 seconds later - with United having been out of possession and having plenty of time to get in and maintain their shape we see this.
I’m not really sure what this is. At best, it looks like a slightly disjointed 4-2-3-1 where the striker has dropped off and Elanga is a bit deeper than Sancho simply because the ball isn’t on his side. Thus that leaves McTominay and Fred in a very disjointed midfield two.
That’s all Pep Guardiola needs to see.
If you’ve read any of the books about Pep you would know the man spends hours watching footage of all his upcoming opponents. He wants to know everything about their team as well as every single one of their players. What are their habits? What are their strengths? What are the team’s weakness and what are each player’s weaknesses? In other words, what do we have to watch out for and what can we exploit?
It doesn’t take too many hours of watching Scott McTominay, especially this season, especially since Ralf Rangnick took over, to see that he’s a player with very little positional sense and zero awareness of the space around him. He has eyes for the ball at all times and thus will only see players when the ball has lead him to said players. He’s very prone to overcommitting towards the ball and thus it’s very easy to use the ball to drag him out of position.
Sometimes he’ll be asked to man-mark a player in which case he’ll see his man as long as he’s in front of him or just off to the side. but once he’s next to him or behind him he’ll lose track of him pretty quickly. This is another great thing you can use to your advantage. Shift McTominay’s man out wide and he’ll vacate his space to follow him out there. Drop the man a little deeper and he might come out of position to close him down. Drop the man just behind McTominay and he won’t drop back and cover him.
Pep loves to find the weak link and target him. We’ve seen him do it to United to devastating effect. In the 2019-20 League Cup semifinal, United were forced to start Phil Jones at centerback with a midfield pair of Fred and Andreas Pereira. Given injuries and a small squad, it was pretty obvious this was going to be United’s team, and Pep had a gameplan that targeted Pereira and Jones.
This week, Pep knew he wasn’t going to be facing the same United team that won three straight matches at the Ethiad. There was going to be no Anthony Martial up front, a very good defensive forward who helps keep United’s shape. There wasn’t going to be a Dan James on the wing who provides you with excellent workrate on the wings, while also tucking inside out of possession to form a three man midfield.
Which allows him to cover gaps left by McTominay when he’s covering for one of the defenders.
That was a team that was filled with workers who provided support for United in areas where they were weaker. Since United don’t have those same players there was a bit of a question over how they were going to play. Thus, Pep was going to need to pay attention for the first few minutes to see it.
Within two minutes it was pretty clear, this was something between a 4-2-3-1, 4-1-4-1, and a 4-2-4 with two false-9s, but whatever it was, the midfield was not going to be getting much support. They were being asked to do a massive job and do it on their own.
For Pep, that made Scott McTominay your weak link and the man you can exploit.
Arlo started speaking at the 3:59 mark that Pep had been trying to convey a message to his team for the past 30 seconds or so, putting us around the three and a half minute mark when he started telling his team to do this.
At the four minute mark he’s what we get.
Bernardo drops deep, McTominay steps up to close him down and continues to follow the ball. All things you know he’s going to do. He then drops back to sit on Silva, but never actually gets next to Silva, rather he stops right in front of him.
He’s now marking a player tight who doesn’t need to be marked that tight (as Elanga is nearby) while leaving two midfielders for Fred to worry about. Victor Lindelof has spotted the danger.
If you’re City and you’ve done your homework on McTominay, you know this is a very good position for you to be in. Silva doesn’t have to make a glaring run, you just need to move the ball and while McTominay is following the ball, Silva will be able to ghost away from him into space.
Had McTominay been man marking Silva, you’d be able to forgive him for being out of position here. But when he’s not paying attention when Silva runs away, you realize he’s not man marking him, he’s just out of position.
Silva gets the ball in a dangerous space and once he realizes that McTominay is - somewhat - trying to recover and get back he pull it out wide to drag McTominay with him. From there he lays off the ball to Jack Grealish who is already being covered by Aaron Wan-Bissaka and begins to make a run.
McTominay - already out of position on the right touchline - opts not to follow the run but to follow the ball. That leaves the run for Wan-Bissaka even though Silva is McTominay’s man and AWB’s BIGGEST STRENGTH is one v one against a winger ON THE TOUCHLINE. Let him get close to Grealish and do what he does best while sticking with the runner.
Throughout this whole sequence, McTominay plays right at, or just below, the same pace as City are playing. This keeps constantly - at best - one step behind and ensuring that Grealish has space to operate. When McTominay typically gets dragged out of position, he’ll at least go in for a hard challenge or try to trap the player, aka actively try to win the ball back. He never does that here which allows City to go 1v2 or 1v3 and still never lose the ball. This leads to plenty of United players being out of position, and plenty of City players being unmarked in dangerous positions.
Eventually you end up with Alex Telles responsible for two players. Jadon Sancho could have picked up De Bruyne (which would have opened up a deeper run) but now we’re getting mad an attacking winger not being to think like a midfielder.
That was the match as City kept doing it. Bernardo Silva was instructed to pull out wide, drop deep, push forward, or basically go anywhere that wasn’t where McTominay was supposed to be because McTominay would drag himself out of position to follow.
A quick glance at City’s pass map for the match shows how important Bernardo and that left side were to attacking.
Keep the ball near McTominay, drag him out of position and send runners right near him. He won’t spot them.
City took advantage of all those things on their second goal as well.
A failed clearance by Wan-Bissaka but when the ball is kept in, Phil Foden is right on the back shoulder of McTominay. McTominay has no idea.
Only when the ball goes up and over McTominay does he turn and even get Foden in his line of vision. Despite clearly seeing a threat, he never bothers to try and stay with Foden.
As City get the ball in, McTominay is just watching his defenders and goalkeeper try and deal with the situation. City on the other hand are thinking “what if?” and charging hard for a potential rebound.
McTominay never sees De Bruyne running in, he never sees Bernardo Silva trying to react on a rebound. He never breaks from a jog because he doesn’t think he has to, he doesn’t see the runners that need to be covered!
Screenshots of course can only do so much. Watch the entire sequence now and pay extra attention to McTominay’s eyes. Notice how he never takes them off the ball.
McTominay is far from the only player culpable on this goal. Lindelof gets beat badly on that challenge and he too never bothers to try and hustle back into the box, Maguire does some weird and questionable shit. This is the perfect example of a goal where MANY players screwed up. For a “defensive” midfielder though, this is terrible. He never once spots the potential danger here.
Everything McTominay did here is reactive to what the ball did. It also would have helped if he put in any of the effort that he’s “famous” for but a good midfielder knows his surroundings, he sees other players and understands who might be a threat and goes to neutralize them before they become threats. McTominay never takes his eyes off the ball and never sees other players in the area who could quickly become threats.
Pep saw this and had his team attack down that flank the entire game, trying to exploit United’s weakness. The third goal was scored on a corner kick that City won after De Bruyne ghosted right behind McTominay only to watch McTominay follow the ball and leave him alone.
He never knew De Bruyne was there.
One pass later and City were attacking only for Wan-Bissaka to put it out for a corner.
Pep simply did the same thing he did two years ago when he went after Jones and Pereira all game. Two years ago there was nothing Solskjaer could do about Jones but he addressed the problem by replacing Pereira with Nemanja Matic to better protect both Fred and Jones. United were much better in the second half and nearly evened up the tie in the second leg.
On Sunday there was no tactical tweak at halftime. Pep was freely allowed to keep doing what he was doing and when Ralf Rangnick failed to react, United lost any chance they had of getting back into the match.