Tactics Watch: Man City vs Man United

ESPNSTAR.com looks at the tactical nuances behind the Manchester derby where United came out 3-2 winners over City to extend their lead at the top of the table.

Aguero was all over the pitch...
Kelvin Yap

By Kelvin Yap

Coming into the match, both Manchester sides were top of the Premier League table but faced criticism after failing to deliver in a consistent fashion so far this season.

Manchester City's defence looked vulnerable after Roberto Mancini failed to replace Nigel De Jong over the summer and his experiments with a three-man defence has only exacerbated the problem.

Manchester United's tendency to concede the early goal was highlighted and this was down more to an injury-struck backline than any tactical weakness as there were not any consistent patterns in the goals they conceded.

Also, their attempts to switch to a ‘diamond' 4-4-2 without wingers have reaped mixed results while their wingers themselves have failed to find form so far.

Same shape, different intent

While both sides set their team out in a 4-2-3-1 shape, their intents were distinctly different and it showed during the match.

Mancini clearly stuck to his side's strengths and focused City's play down the middle.

Mario Balotelli started up front instead of Carlos Tevez, with Sergio Aguero dropping behind him. Joleon Lescott was again overlooked as Matija Nastasic played alongside Vincent Kompany while the  Gael Clichy took over Aleksandar Kolarov as left back.

David Silva and Samir Nasri were their ‘wingers' but they kept narrow and frequently cut into the middle as attacking midfielders and were supported by Yaya Toure and Gareth Barry from behind.

As for United, Wayne Rooney started behind Robin van Persie and dropped deep into midfield when needed while Tom Cleverley partnered Michael Carrick at the base of midfield.

Most significantly, Sir Alex Ferguson deployed two orthodox wingers in Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young despite all the talk about a ‘narrow' diamond 4-4-2 formation.

While both teams set out a compact team (meaning that their defensive line pushed up as their attack flows up), City directed their play via the middle while United focused on getting the play down the flank.

  City's approach, United's bypass

City started the match strongly by pushing a high line up the pitch and had their full backs provide width for them, pinning United's wingers back into their own half.

This enabled Mancini to throw men forward to dominate play safe in the knowledge that Van Persie and Rooney don't have the pace to break past Nastasic and Kompany.

The sheer amount of players City had in United's half meant that they were able to impose their passing game which made them the powerful title-winning side last season. The fact that they controlled 80% of the possession 15 minutes into the match told of their superiority in play.

Silva was key to their play - City looked the most dangerous when the Spaniard was on the ball and he was the only City player who looked capable of picking out a pass through a crowded box.

United responded by pushing their wingers up - they realised that going through the middle was futile and channelled their play down the flanks from deep, using their defenders to knock the balls forward instead of relying on Carrick's distribution from midfield.

From there, the wingers will then cut in and bring the play in the middle for United to ping around their opponent's box like they usually do - it was a case of having the same end result, but via a different approach.

Rooney's goals showed United's strategy; both goals resulted from overlapping runs down the flank, a low pass cut into the middle and a run across the front of City's defenders.

United did take the lead against the run of play, but it was Ferguson's sound tactical calls that did it for them. He picked his battles on the pitch by letting City have the advantage they wanted without conceding a goal and played to his side's strengths.

It's also worth a mention that a 3-5-2 formation would have worked well for City here - the extra man in the middle of defence would have been perfect to deal with Rooney's runs. Again, this points to a good tactical decision from Ferguson to out-guess his counterpart.

This move also opened the game up as it allowed United a consistent outlet to direct their attack - United had more of the ball in the remainder of the half, tallying 41% possession by halftime.

Balotelli vs Tevez

The next tactical change came shortly after half time when Balotelli was taken off to make way for Carlos Tevez. Aguero was shifted forward to lead the line while Tevez took up a role similar to Rooney's, dropping back to midfield to bring the ball up.

While City's formation remained the same, they appeared more direct, which is due to the difference between Balotelli and Tevez (or Aguero) when they receive the ball. 

Balotelli tends to pick up the ball with his back to goal, which means that he will need time and space to direct play forward. On the other hand, Tevez likes to receive the ball at his feet facing goal, which means that he will only need a touch or two to bring push play forward.

This helped City penetrate into United's box easily and create more chances on goal - both sides had five shots attempted in the first half, but City ended the game with 18 shots attempted, almost twice as United's 10 shots attempted.

Yaya Toure's goal was proof of that - Tevez's run onto Silva's through pass broke the shape of United's defence. Balotelli would have taken the ball, slow the play down and try to hold off Ferdinand before attempting a shot.

The big question that many would inevitably ask was: ‘Why didn't Mancini start with Balotelli?'

Well, it's easy to blame Mancini for not starting Tevez but he has good reason to pick Balotelli ahead.

Looking at the start of the match, City had the upper hand and camped out almost exclusively in United's half, which meant that they needed someone who could hold onto the ball and pin United back instead of someone who could make runs - Aguero was already on the pitch for that.

Also, the game was at a very open phase at the point where Tevez came on, which suited his game more than Balotelli. United were on the attack at the other end moments before Yaya Toure scored, which illustrates the end-to-end nature of the game at that time.


Both sides came under fire for not being consistent coming into the game but both came out of the match showing that they still had it to replicate the type of football that saw them finish top of the Premier League last season.

City showed that their central midfield partnership is still a force to be reckoned with even without a ‘proper' replacement for De Jong while Silva still has the magical pass to slice defences open.

As for United, all three goals resulted from play on the flanks, which only goes to show that their perceived problem with the wingers may be a fleeting issue.

The result could have gone either way with both sides showing their merits but the manner in which City and United played out the derby could prove more significant than the result in the run of the season.

If the two of them can carry on from this match and knock up a consistent run in the following weeks, it will be a tall task for any other team in the league to catch up to them.

Kelvin will be analysing a Premier League match every Monday in Tactics Watch. You can reach him by following his twitter account @plevyakin for more tactical insights and football updates.

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