Xtra Tactics: Manchester United vs Manchester City (Premier League)

The tactical battle clearly favors Pep Guardiola as Manchester City travel to Old Trafford to face Manchester United in a derby that very well could decide the title race.

Both City and United enter the Manchester derby with an awful lot on the line. For the Blues, a perfect rest of season is likely required to secure the Premier League crown, while their rivals cling onto a chance of finishing in the top four by a thread. While City fans may still be recovering from the disappointment of another early Champions League exit, United enter this match in much worse shape.

The Ole Gunnar Solskjær era started with tremendous promise, enough so to give the Norwegian the job full time. Yet the excitement and energy that defined the early stages of his tenure has deteriorated into a state of concern, building up to six losses across their last eight matches in all competitions. But the most worrisome consideration for United, who just committed to Solskjær for three more years, is that the tactics of their new manager are starting to resemble those of their old one, Jose Mourinho.

Manchester United – Most used formations

While Solskjær will likely never subscribe to a brand of football as negative as Mourinho’s, his strategy has gradually flowed in that direction. Moreover, it has become evident that Solskjær is unsure what the best version of his squad is, regularly shifting between three and four at the back over the last couple months.

In their home game against Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League quarter finals, United opted for a three man defence with their wing backs pushed high. However, with Barcelona stifling Solskjaer’s side with a 66.4% share of possession, this essentially became five at the back due to the persistent defensive strain coming from the wings. With City managing 65% possession in their last derby and famed for their immense width of play, this could force Solskjaer into a similar game plan.

Regardless of their formation though, United’s style of play has been consistent and has elements that should be sources of both excitement and nervousness for City fans.

Manchester United – Strengths

United’s development into a defensively oriented side has coincided with their reliance on the counterattack, the primary factor for Pep Guardiola to address leading up to the match. With a collection of pacey forwards in Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard, and Anthony Martial, United look to create fast vertical transitions and get these players running in behind, often from wide spaces into the central channel.

During more methodical attacking progressions, Solskjær is dependent on wide buildups and the wingers to be the creative force. United’s forwards, including Lukaku, have a habit of floating wide while in possession, leaving space for attacking runs from the midfielders. This type of movement should be carefully monitored by Guardiola as City’s backline must maintain their shape amidst this unconventional offensive tendency.

Manchester United – Weaknesses

United building up like this is a function of a weak midfield, which simultaneously lacks the ability to consistently create chances and control possession. Solskjær’s team has failed to secure more than 52% possession for more than a month, a surprising statistic based on the talent on the team sheet.

Nevertheless, United’s midfield has been incapable of setting their attackers up for the high percentage scoring opportunities we are used to seeing from City. As a result, they are becoming increasingly dependent on shots from outside the box, with 13 of their 20 shots across both Champions League legs against Barcelona coming from distance.

The midfield can be exploited on the defensive side of the ball as well, with their natural inclination to stay narrow exposing the wide half spaces where City thrives. Guardiola prefers to initiate combination play towards goal from these areas anyway, and they are conveniently the most ripe for the taking against United, especially when you consider the poor recent form of their fullbacks, particularly Ashley Young.

United also get caught out of position more than one would expect given their current tactics. This is in large part to two main reasons – a vulnerability to the counterpress and an eagerness to hit on the counter. Fred has become a staple of Solskjær’s team sheet after struggling to get in the side for so long, yet has proven to be insecure on the ball when pressured. Opponents have dispossessed him regularly in recent memory, leading to several dangerous chances. Couple that with a team that over-commits on their own transition opportunities often leads to quick turnovers and odd man rushes towards David De Gea. The attacking runs from the midfielders also distort their structure and invite counters from the opponent if a clean clearance can be made.

Manchester City vs Manchester United – Last 10 Head-to-Head results:

(Credit: 11v11.com)

With only four wins, four losses and two draws in the last ten matches against United, City and Guardiola have enough cause for concern heading to Old Trafford tomorrow. Despite the Blues bettering their city rivals in the league in all of those past seasons, the results looking like they have been balanced by Thanos himself just goes to show how form can go flying out the window when it comes to derby matches. The issue is, of course, that City can’t afford anything but a win. We’re in the endgame now.

The Xtra View – “Talent cannot be overlooked”

Overall, every indicator points to a good matchup for Pep Guardiola’s side, yet the talent that United possess cannot be overlooked no matter how well their form is entering this match. The expected goal statistics indicate that United has underperformed their expected results over the last month (in Premier League matches) as well and it is well known that weird things often occur in derbies.

Either way, this is Manchester City’s largest hurdle remaining to retaining the Premier League championship, and we can only hope the tactical advantage the Blues have on paper holds true on the pitch Wednesday.


You can follow the author on Twitter here: @Kevin_N_Nelson

You can follow us on Twitter for more Manchester City content: @City_Xtra

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