Manchester City are going to Wembley, but it came at the expense of the second derby day loss at the Etihad this season, as they went a goal down to Manchester United, and failed to take their chances throughout the game.
United played to their strengths and deserved something out of the game. Overall however, Manchester City showed that they were the better side and it was the first half of the first-leg which went on to define this semi-final tie.
So, what can we take away from a match largely inconsequential to the result? Here are five things we’ve learned…
Anything can happen in a derby
Many would know this already, but some were positioning this match as a foregone conclusion since Manchester City were so dominant in the first-leg. Any true City fan should know that would never be the case.
You can’t rule out Man United, or a “typical City” performance. Despite having the inferior team and far less time on the ball, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer once again managed his side to victory at the Etihad. It’s not a freak occurrence. Their defensive line was well organised, catching both Sterling and Agüero out for offside goals, and they played to their strengths, being at their most threatening from set-pieces.
It’s a win for the reds but it must be bittersweet. One fan told me they won the battle but lost the war. Fortunately for them, there’ll be plenty more to come and their record at the Etihad Stadium should start to be something of a concern for the City brass.
If you live by the sword…
The leg at Old Trafford taught us why City absolutely need to be clinical. They could have been five goals up by half-time and not taking their chances there led to this leg being much more competitive than it should have been. This lesson wasn’t learned, and the chances spurned here cost City the match and almost the semi-final.
Despite once again having most of the possession, and shots on goal, City couldn’t make it count. Meanwhile at the other end, all the opposition need is one shot on target and the ball finds the back of the net. This has been the case throughout Guardiola’s time at City – the way we play leaves us vulnerable to counters and ultimately set-pieces. The key is to outscore the other side, but it was a case of one pass or one touch too many whenever a player found their way through on goal.
David Silva’s back pass was emblematic of this when he found himself one-on-one with De Gea late in the second half. City need to learn from this and fast because it’s exactly the kind of mistake which can cost you dearly in a cup game. It’s easy to say take your chances, but at points, players were actively avoiding the goal.
While they got away with it here, they won’t in the Champions League…
Tactical exploration continues
Knowing Manchester United have the pace to make City suffer on the counter, Guardiola mixed things up again, this time trying Walker out on the right side of a back three, and Cancelo similarly on the left. This gave City the pace needed at the back, but somewhat upset the build up in possession. Martial, Greenwood, and Lingard were very central which made it difficult to get passes forward to Rodri and Gundogan without putting them under pressure. This caused more passes out to the wing and pulled De Bruyne to the touchline.
Some will say that Pep “overthought” this one. It’s difficult to make this argument though when the fact is that if City took their chances in front of goal, like United did, they would have won the game. This formation stifled United’s attacking threat to the point that they were only dangerous from the set-pieces they won.
While this was a new role for some players on the pitch, they should have the ability to see out their instructions, and most did. The ones who didn’t were playing in roles they should be more than comfortable in…
Run on the Sterling
It’s right to say that Sterling is going through a patch of rough form right now. What we should remember is that this is comparative to the fantastic performances he’s brought week after week for the last few seasons. His positioning in this game was good, and he presented the talented Wan-Bissaka with a challenge on City’s attacking left.
What he’s lacking is the goal threat we know he can pose. In his one-on-one chance with De Gea, he made the wrong decision to take a few extra touches, whereas the Sterling from last season would have taken the opportunity to shoot earlier.
Sterling did manage to score from an offside position with a vintage tap in at the back-post, but it’s the direct chances he looks to be struggling with. How can Guardiola remedy this? The best option is to continue to play Raheem into form. Both Jesus and Foden have been tried on the left of a front three recently with little success, and Bernardo is showing his talents are best utilised in the centre of the pitch.
With competition from Sané still a few weeks off at best, we may just have to persevere and hope he finds his shooting boots sooner rather than later.
Bernardo is the man
While City’s forwards struggle to find their form, Bernardo’s is back. The Portuguese prodigy has found his role in City’s side as the workhorse play-maker behind the front line and it’s working well.
Without him in the centre, City’s press lacks the pace to be able to put the opposition under the pressure needed to quickly and effectively get the ball back. Not only that, but when presented with chances, he’s taking them. His ball control has been excellent recently and he would have been more effective here but for a few sloppy passes.
This match also saw him take up a role in the forward three once David Silva came on, but he was less productive. For me, he’s one player necessary to see in the starting line for a big game right now. Once El Mago disappears, I think Bernardo may be our best option as his successor.
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