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Manchester Derby: Before and After
I’m trying something slightly different.
Ok, so this newsletter will be split into two sections. The first has been written in advance of Saturday’s Manchester derby, and it’s going to attempt to explain what I think we’ll see in the game. But you’re reading this after full time, so you already know what happened (I’m also pre-writing the introduction, it’s 4.22 PM in the UK for me on Saturday right now). So then the second section will attempt to unpack how much I got right or, in all likelihood, wrong, and what it tells us about both teams.
Strange fixture, this one.
With the balance of power firmly shifting towards the blue half of Manchester, you’d expect City to be pretty dominant here. But it just hasn’t really happened that way in recent years. United winning home and away last season speaks to Guardiola’s struggles to just put this fixture to bed. They should be miles ahead, but they’re not.
The reason, I think, is Solskjaer’s talent as a reactive coach. This doesn’t make him a good Man Utd manager. He can’t seem to build any clear structure in possession and he’s had more than enough time to do it. United still mainly just rely on the quality of individuals in attack, which is fine to get you a decent number of points, but to challenge for titles you need a more holistic approach. This matters less in big games, when you’re going to get more space to attack into. What matters more is a reactive model to prevent the opposition from doing their thing, then you can rely on your quality breaking into space.
He tends to improvise different systems against the best sides and it’s often served him well. There have been times when it’s gone catastrophically wrong, but for the most part, it gives them a boost in these games they might not otherwise have. Take last season’s win against City at Old Trafford. United played a sort of 3-4-1-2 shape with a very functional Fred-Nemanja Matic double pivot, accepted 28% possession, and still outshot City 12-7. The way this usually goes is that the team conceding the ball has a few good chances on the break while the opponent rains down a bunch of low-xG shots. This was a near perfect model of how to play against a top possession-dominant side.
We saw Solskjaer return to this shape against Leipzig, so I think we’ll see it here. That should mean an emphasis on staying pretty solid, doing this kind of weird low block press thing they do, and exploiting the pace of whichever two of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial or Mason Greenwood start. Alex Telles should offer a wide option they haven’t had in these sort of games, but Aaron Wan-Bissaka is still kind of a black hole in possession, so don’t expect much of a flank based attack. The playmaking will, as ever, mostly be about Bruno Fernandes finding the runners. It’s a fairly straightforward approach, but that doesn’t mean it can’t work.
It probably means no place for Paul Pogba again. So I’m going to predict the only change made by Solskjaer from midweek is Martial in for Greenwood.
As for City, we can take it as a given that they’ll dominate possession. Guardiola likes to tinker in big games, as I may have written about. Usually it’s about finding ways to defend against fast counter attacks, and I’m sure this will be on his mind today. I’m trying to do something absolutely impossible here, and that’s predict what lineup Guardiola will put out. He could easily do something really out there, but to make my life easier, I’m going to say he won’t.
It’ll be the 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 shape he’s generally gone with this season. I’m punting that he’ll come to his senses and start Aymeric Laporte at centre back again alongside Ruben Dias, with Joao Cancelo at left back and Kyle Walker of course on the right. Defending counters usually means trying to get more control in the side for Pep, so I think he’ll start both Rodri and Ilkay Gundogan in midfield alongside Kevin De Bruyne. The attack is a little more complicated. Raheem Sterling is a given, presumably on the left. If he wants more control and more pressing, that would imply Gabriel Jesus over Sergio Aguero, but I’m not confident. On the right, it seems like a game for a quasi-midfielder rather than Riyad Mahrez. It could be Phil Foden, but I’m going to say Bernardo Silva.
This might create a bit of a problem for City. Wan-Bissaka has shown he can pretty effectively shut down a flank against this side before, so I’m not sure they’re going to get an awful lot going on the left with Sterling. That probably means more coming from the right, and if they’ve got a quasi-midfielder there, it can make them a bit flat. Walker will perhaps play a more aggressive overlapping role, but I don’t feel his quality in the final third is good enough when he does this. This could also mean De Bruyne drifting wide a lot, and there’s a risk they again become very reliant on what he does. But he’s amazing, so it might be fine.
Unfortunately I think we’re heading for a fairly dull game. I could see neither side getting beyond 10 shots. City will have long spells of possession that might not really force the issue, getting shut down on the left and pulling it over to the stable passers on the right. United will be content with this and try to counter in specific moments. I’m going to say 1-1.
Jesus, that was rough.
So I got some of the details wrong, but I feel like I nailed it on the dullness. This kind of performance has been coming from City, and I don’t know if it’s necessarily a huge problem, but it represents a shift.
“I can't promise titles but I am convinced that the fans will be proud of us. I give you my word that we will put in an effort. I don't know if we'll win, but we'll persist. Put on your seat belts, because we're going to have fun.”
“I loathe all that passing for the sake of it, all that tiki-taka. It's so much rubbish and has no purpose. You have to pass the ball with a clear intention, with the aim of making it into the opposition's goal. It's not about passing for the sake of it."
That was the old Guardiola. In some ways he hasn’t changed. He still believes in a proactive model of dominating games with the ball. But that possession doesn’t seem to come with the same purpose. It’s “control” to prevent the opposition launching counters. Passing and passing and going nowhere. It’s tiki-taka.
The reason is the same thing that he keeps stumbling over: defending counter attacks. This has haunted him for a long time now, and it really blew up last season. City were getting played through so easily, giving up many more high quality chances than before, that something had to change. The obvious answer was to get more robust and physical. That was how they did it before, with Fernandinho at the base of midfield. But Pep instead prized control through possession, and has opted to turn down the risk taking significantly.
It kind of worked. United were to be a threat on the counter, and City completely snuffed it out. But it comes at a hell of a price. There’s a genuine risk of Guardiola entering the late period Louis van Gaal zone.
As for United, well, they were fine enough. Solskjaer suggested that, despite the result, this was the best they’ve played against City as it was the “most [they’ve] been in the game”. Previous wins were about retreating and hitting City on the counter, whereas Solskjaer seemed pleased his side had more of a foothold in the game. This might explain why it was so unwatchable: City sacrificed everything to defend the counter, but United weren’t even that interested in using it. Just stale, stale crap.
They played an unusual shape that started as a 4-4-2 diamond but became a 4-3-3 in possession. I’m not really sure what the supposed benefit of this was. It added an extra central midfielder in Pogba to make them more solid, and when he moved wide, he was more likely to recycle possession than bust a gut to get to the byline. Greenwood similarly doesn’t offer a ton beyond finishing yet, so it meant Wan-Bissaka was again the outlet. OLE, STOP DOING THIS. It’s so bad. He kills almost every attack dead when the ball is at his feet. He’s really outstanding at defending 1v1, and should just be left to do that. You don’t ever want him with the ball at his feet in the final third.
City “won” the xG, and that feels right, but it really shouldn’t convince anyone. They were as flat as flat can be, no one deserved a point here, and frankly I wish I never started watching football in the first place after that.