Manchester City hosted their city rivals Manchester United in a crucial Premier League matchup on Sunday in which both sides hoped to lay claim to the coveted Champions League spot. Pellegrini went for what was his expected line-up considering the absences among the Citizens’ ranks. Meanwhile, Louis Van Gaal also had some injuries in his squad, most notably to captain Wayne Rooney, so Marcus Rashford once more started up front with Lindgard, Martial and Mata the trio behind him.
Both sides man-mark
United, as we’ve come to expect under Van Gaal’s tenure, have more often than not tended to man-mark their opposition quite tightly. Sunday was no exception – each player was paired up with their opposite number. There was a particular moment early in the match when Aguero received the ball inside the City half and was pressured by Smalling; the Englishman gave the foul away and was booked, however this is nothing new from Van Gaal’s United.
On the other side, City also man-marked, although not quite with the same rigidity as United. Early in the match, Sagna followed his opposite number, Anthony Martial, all the way from the right-back position to the middle of the pitch before passing him on to a teammate. Similarly, one early United break saw Jesse Lindgard come centrally from his right-midfield position to receive the ball and drive at the City defence, Martial pulled Sagna out of position and Rashford pulled wide, where his direct opponent Demichelis could be isolated; on that occasion, however, the veteran Argentine managed to put in a good challenge and stop the United attack.
Lindgard’s movement inside was in some ways a precursor of sorts to where the academy graduate would spend much of the game after the early stages. Juan Mata had gone wide to the right, presumably to negate the physical disadvantage he would face man-marking Yaya Toure. On the right, Mata would come up against Clichy, a smaller proposition that is also not the best going forward.
Lindgard would be given the responsibility of driving forward with the ball from midfield every now and then.
City with too many gaps behind the midfield
City, as we’ve seen, often leave too many gaps in midfield, particularly when Yaya Toure is playing as one of the holding midfielders. The Ivorian is no longer able to play in the position as adequately as he used to, and is now far more effective as a number 10.
The solitary goal yesterday was proof of this, although it was by no means all on Toure’s back that the gaps opened up. As United played out of defence, Toure’s attempt to aid Aguero and Silva in pressing was terribly misguided. His starting position was too far off from his opposite number and the Ivorian therefore could not realistically gain access to him.
From then on Schneiderlin, Carrick and Mata – all positioned centrally in the build up, creating a 3v1(!) against Fernandinho – combined, and Mata ran into space before passing to Rashford, who with quickness of feet was able to leave Demichelis on the floor before slipping the ball past Joe Hart.
In defence of Toure, the Man City back-line should probably have pushed up so that the Citizens could maintain their shape and most importantly remain compact. This would have negated the opportunity of Mata to run into the space behind the midfield.
Now, with that being said, the inclusion of Demichelis probably meant that City would have been ill-advised to press high up as a result of the Argentine’s quite obvious lack of pace and mobility as well as the fact that both Martial and Rashford were playing on his side of the defence and could have – and in fact did, on a couple of occasions – easily exposed this.
The fact that both sides approached the match with the intention of man-marking was interesting. As noted previously, United under Van Gaal have come to be defined by man-marking. Perhaps Pellegrini thought that he could counter this by playing 1v1 in every area of the pitch, sensible enough since City do have the better players. But the Chilean didn’t bank on the intelligent movements of the likes of Martial and particularly Mata, who found and exploited the space to feed Rashford for the winning goal. The usual shortcomings of City with regards to compactness and poor positional play on and off the ball and a reliance on individual brilliance meant there was little opportunity for coming back into the game, as proven by the fact that they dominated possession after conceding but didn’t make as many chances as they would have liked.
United will be thrilled to have won the derby, especially since it means they are now well within reach of securing the fourth and the final Champions League spot. If they pull it off, it will salvage something from what has been an underwhelming season for them.
Speaking of underwhelming seasons, City’s shortcomings were once more made clear for all to see. The appointment of Pep Guardiola will in all likelihood fix some of these problems, although he too, as ingenious as he is, will need some time and reinforcements to bring City into the elite of European football. But that is something to worry about next year; right now, City are facing the possibility of not qualifying for next season’s Champions League.