Tactical Analysis : Manchester United vs Manchester City

Written by Matthew Mak

Once again, the semi-final of Carabao Cup is a Manchester Derby as Manchester United and Manchester City played against each other on this day last year. Their previous clash in the league might be a boring one from an entertaining perspective, but this cup tie is better as the guests entered the final again with John Stones and Fernandinho’s goals.

This tactical analysis piece mainly covers the positional plays strategies of Pep Guardiola’s men. The first part is a brief introduction on United’s pressing plan, but hardly could the Red Devils carried out the game plan because of the fluid attack of the Citizens, creating numerical superiorities during the build-up is the best way to play out from the back.


Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has yet to win anything for his team, this competition would be a good one to bag a trophy. Therefore, the home side fielded the strongest squad they could play, which was the very similar to the Premier League one. The only difference was Anthony Martial starting ahead of Mason Greenwood, who later came on late in this game.

City needed some rotations given many first-team players unavailable due to COVID-19. Ederson, Ferran Torres, and Gabriel Jesus missed the game as the undergoing quarantine procedure. Rodrigo Hernandez was rested and replaced by Fernandinho. Riyad Mahrez returned to the lineup, playing at the centre instead of staying on the right.

United pressing

United did not wish to sit deep and defend in a low block. Instead, they pushed high and pressed City. When they did this last year, City very easily manipulated the man-marking system of the home side and demolished the defence. To avoid the same happening, the man-oriented approach was less rigid, more flexibility was added.

The below tactic board shows ideal situation of the press. United intended to keep the centre-backs in position, even stepping up for a moment to follow Mahrez, they would quickly return to position to avoid spaces being exploited by runners. At the wide zones, the full-backs must attach the wingers – Raheem Sterling and Phil Foden, only if the targets left far away to the opposite vertical half, they would give up the marking.

At the midfield, United still tried to defend in a man-oriented manner to mark the City players initially. Ideally, Bruno Fernandes should keep Fernandinho under his shadow, while Scott McTominay gaining control on Ilkay Gundogan. Fred should also try to contain De Bruyne. However, this was the issue as United could not judge the optimal pressing moment, and this system collapsed – resulting in a free City player to progress the ball up field easily.

As mentioned, the man-oriented system was less rigid, so sometimes the players could initiate press when triggers such as lateral passes and closed body. You could see Fernandes leading the line below while trying to cover Fernandinho.

Strategies to break the press – numerical superiority

The first important element in positional plays of City in this game is numerical superiorities. Through methods such as rotation and positional interchanges, they were able to manipulate the positions of defenders and create the free player.

Here, when City played out from the back and formed the back three shape, the three defenders should separate wider to try stretching the defence horizontally. As a result, vertical passing channels are opened between the layers to allow players connecting each other. It also increases the areas for the defensive side to cover, giving each player more spaces on the ball.

The Citizens played out from the back with a 3-2 shape, as Cancelo would tuck into the midfield in this case. When Fernandinho successfully attached Bruno, merely having Martial and Rashford would not be able to press as the guests always enjoyed a “+1” advantage in this phase. For example, this is a 5v4 numerical superiority below, the free player, most likely Stones would be available to bring the ball forward. This helped the ball circulation of City at the backline, unless casually giving away possession or being caught of closed bodies, they were able to play out from the back.

Here is another example of City using the “+1” advantage to play out from the back. As we have explained, the initiator of the press was unfixed, so sometimes the likes of Pogba or Fernandes also led the press. However, when this happened, United were unable to nullify their numerical deficit because of markers away from targets.

When Fernandes pressed Zinchenko above, he gave up Fernandinho and the Brazilian was unmarked. And, even though the rest of the Red Devils – Martial, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, and McTominay man-marked their respective targets, the free player exists.

Given the distancing and spacing factors as explained, United were unlikely to close the passing angle. Fernandes was close to Zinchenko, but it was too late to prevent the inward pass.

Therefore, when Fernandinho received, the press has collapsed as Fernandes was eliminated earlier. The defensive side needed to adjust instantly to access the Brazilian midfielder. The defensive scheme was broken.

Moreover, the initial marker of De Bruyne – Fred has stepped up to approach Fernandinho. Meanwhile, even McTominay and Martial were trying to run back, it was too late to stop Fernandinho. One Fernandinho already absorbed two or more opponents, no more man-oriented scheme.

To capitalize on this situation De Bruyne cleverly moved to the opposite direction of Fred to receive the ball behind the defence. The Belgian international had large spaces to exploit because of the centre-backs were conservative to leave their position in the early minutes. Therefore, we saw Lindelof and Maguire were more aggressive to press the player(s) behind midfield afterwards.

Even United ideally attached the 3-1 build-up players of City, one player who they could not cover was the goalkeeper – Zack Steffen. The Red Devils did not assign any specific player to close the American goalkeeper, and they lacked a planned solution to press when the guests circulate the ball through him.

This deficit could be attributed to the absence of curved runs or zonal defence. United did good enough to man-mark the Citizens, it was a 4v4 outside of the penalty box. However, it became a 5v4 when the ball moved further backward. Stones played the ball back, and Martial instantly pressed Steffen vertically, but the distance was too large to access the target quickly. And because of Martial giving up Dias, the next pass from Steffen on Dias was easily played. Then, Rashford was in a 1v2 against Zinchenko and Dias.

City should be credited for moving the ball smoothly at the back, using the right rhythm to generate and utilize the free option.

However, one very minor tweak of Pep at the second half was dropping Mahrez deeper more often to create a horizontal overload in the second layer. Before of this tactical change, City roughly reached numerical equality at the midfield, the advantage was not too obvious. The Citizens knew the conservative behaviours of the centre-backs, so even dropping Mahrez deeper would not compress spaces in this zone. Furthermore, they could place Foden or Sterling to provide the point of offensive height as well.

In this image, Gundogan, De Bruyne and Mahrez formed a 3v2 numerical overload on McTominay and Fred. When McTominay tried to press De Bruyne, he gave up Gundogan and this action told Dias who to pass.  City quickly utilized this additional free player in the midfield and advanced into the final third.


City won the game by two goals to nil with two set-play goals. However, they also have well-prepared strategy in positional plays to play out from the back. The man-oriented pressing of Unied was not enough to trouble the build-up of the guests. It would require more to press Guardiola’s men in their half.

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