Manchester derbies usually promise goals, a noisy atmosphere and a high tempo for the game. Sunday’s clash at the Etihad Stadium continued in the same form as Manchester City beat Manchester United 4-1 in a thrilling encounter, with both sides allowing their players to attack at will.
With Cristiano Ronaldo not fit enough to make the team unavailable and Edinson Cavani, it gave Ralf Rangnick the chance to try something different without threatening to upset the star striker.
The German had used Man City and Liverpool as a possible marker for Man United to rely on going forward after crediting the loyalty of Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp to their footballing ideals earlier this week.
“They have a very clear identity, a clear idea of how they want to play,” he said. “I know Jurgen in person and I also know Pep from those three years in Germany, when he was head coach of Bayern Munich.
“He also has a clear idea of how he wants to play and that idea is the headline for everything that happens at the club, for recruitment, for any new player he signs or even for any player he will sell. That, I think, is the secret of their success.”
And that may have been reflected with his surprise setup. Rangnick rolled the dice with a tactical modification of his favorite 4-2-2-2 setup, while Pep Guardiola stuck to his tried and trusted 4-3-3 formation which focused on using a fake new.
Here, Mirror Football takes an in-depth analytical look at the tactics used by the two managers – and how that influenced the outcome of the game.
Man Utd’s audacious 4-2-2-2 backfires
Twitter/Sky Sports PL)
The initial thought that Rangnick would use Bruno Fernandes as a false nine was incorrect. Instead, he chose the unusual step of combining the Portuguese and Paul Pogba in the middle, with Jadon Sancho and Anthony Elanga hitting City in the wide areas.
From the first minute, United showed their intention to attack with five players stationed in City’s defensive third. Fernandes and Pogba pressed as a two-man partnership to win possession high up the pitch and, compared to their previous setups under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Jose Mourinho, it was a huge shift in philosophy.
It was bold and brave, taking on City at what they did best playing from the back. It was risky as Guardiola’s side tend to like teams trying to press them and usually have the confidence and ability to get him around the press.
It didn’t take long for Gary Neville to cast doubt on the setup after watching the game from the Sky Sports commentary box as City cut their opponents to score the opener through Kevin De Bruyne. From a defensive point of view, the opener was certainly avoidable. Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Scott McTominay and Victor Lindelof failed to prevent Bernardo Silva’s low cross and they paid the price.
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“Looking at the position of Fernandes and Pogba, it’s strange, it looks like a 4-2-2-2 but Sancho and Elanga are too wide,” he said on Sky Sports.
But in the first half the system proved threatening for City to manage on the counter and the two false nines of Fernandes and Pogba – from much deeper positions – played a key role in the equalizer.
From deep within their own half, United worked their way out of the corner with delightful one-touch passes, Pogba and Fernandes exchanging a sublime one-two. This freed up Sancho to carry the ball forward against Kyle Walker, who was half-occupied with Fernandes’ overlapping run to his left. At one point, there were four United players out of City’s three.
Sancho came inside, faked the shot, then placed his effort into the far corner with a curling strike to beat Ederson. United had the goal their positive play deserved and Neville changed his mind, suggesting it was a ‘brave’ approach in trying to get City to play their own ultra-attacking game.
But the defensive problems that came with playing such an attacking formation were exposed. Foden was allowed to burst through the middle time and time again, and the pressure on United’s backline seemed too much to sustain. The lack of protection from Scott McTominay and Fred was equally detrimental.
Certainly, Fernandes enjoyed his free role in the absence of compatriot Ronaldo and was far more influential than he has been at other times this season.
But simultaneously United found themselves terribly short of defensive numbers in the second half, and the four-man attack looked jaded trying to meet the physical demands of their new role, failing to muster a shot on goal.
By launching a full-scale attack up front, United sacrificed their defensive solidity, which had generally improved under Rangnick since taking charge. Few could fault the German for trying to implement his attacking ideals in the squad to pull out all the stops for the win.
But with Man United’s top four prospects suffering yet another crushing defeat after Arsenal beat Watford earlier on Sunday, the price of potentially missing out on the Champions League is a heavy price to pay for his tactical adventure.
Man City’s false nine decoy
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Guardiola has often been accused of ‘overthinking’ his tactics when it comes to big games. But there’s a method to the Catalan madness – City have won their last two derbies when they’ve played a false nine, but none of the last four when they’ve had a more conventional striker.
Guardiola was quite happy to keep the status quo with a false nine in a 4-3-3. It’s a system that worked wonders for him at Barcelona and at times with Bayern Munich, but he perfected it at Man City.
In games of the highest magnitude, Guardiola tends to select a less attack-focused player and almost lines his team up in a 4-2-4-0. This gives them the freedom and fluidity to buzz through pockets of space in the final third and move together as a tight, compact unit, never seeming to drift five yards apart.
With the energy of Phil Foden, the vision of Bernardo Silva and the expert wingers of Jack Grealish and Riyad Mahrez, they have plenty of ways to hurt their opponents, as Man United have discovered. But it was Kevin De Bruyne who shone with two well-scored goals, while setting up Mahrez for the third.
There’s a reason Man City are league leaders and United are now 22 points behind. Their fantastic five – De Bruyne, Foden, Mahrez, Grealish and Bernardo Silva – were central to every attacking move.
Within five minutes they had unraveled United’s game plan with a move straight out of Guardiola’s playbook. A complex pass down the left between Joao Cancelo and Foden saw Silva gain control of the ball and with just one touch he took three players out of the game.
The Portuguese played a great cutback that traveled far too long inside the box and De Bruyne made no mistakes to score his 50th Premier League goal.
Much has been said about how Guardiola and Rangnick would perfect the fake role of nine. But if anything, it was just a decoy for City. Foden may have been cast in the role, but he wasn’t the main danger.
The young Englishman’s runs from behind pushed Maguire and Lindelof away, with the 20-year-old acting almost like a rubber wall to bounce the ball off.
Silva and Grealish stayed close to Foden to exchange a trade, leaving room for De Bruyne to make a late run into the box. Every time the Belgian did that, City scored.
The luxury for Guardiola is that he can use Mahrez, Foden, Silva and De Bruyne in those roles and rarely see their attacking threat drop. The staff changes often, but not the role.
United had no answers to deal with the attacking threat posed by City, only hoping that they would survive the persistent waves of attacks that came their way and launch their own counter. Foden continued to run behind, while City gently pulled the sting out of play with the passing death.
As the game went on, those counters that looked dangerous in the first half arrived too infrequently to cause City problems at the back. And after City added two more goals, Guardiola could rest easy claiming another scalp against one of his managerial rivals in the tactical battle.