Manchester Derby: Tactical Analysis

One Nil
8 min readDec 11, 2017
Pep Guardiola outclassed Jose Mourinho yet again in an interesting tactical battle

“Manchester is Blue” was the cry from the commentators after an enthralling game that finished high on drama and it is Pep Guardiola who has yet again reset Manchester United’s unbeaten home record to 0 with a carbon-copy scoreline from his previous win at Old Trafford.

Let us look into the tactical aspects of the two masterminds, who battled each other for the “Red or Blue” bragging rights:


Manchester United

Manchester United lined up in a 4–2–3–1 with Rashford, Martial & Lukaku starting together.

The reason probably was that Mourinho knew United wouldn’t be having much of the ball and hence it was important to be prepared for what to do off-the-ball. City are a team that focus on width while they attack, having 2 players always out wide. Hence, the plan would have been that the 2 wingers be of support to Valencia and Young with Sane and Sterling on the wide areas to avoid 1v1 situations often and also stop Walker and Delph outnumbering in the wide areas.

It could also be because of the urge to counter with pace with the likes of Martial, Rashford and Lingard. The plan would have been to hold up the ball with Lukaku with a defender at his back, lay it off to an on-coming midfielder who would release the pacey front-men (Martial, Rashford and Lingard) on the counter. Fellaini failed to prove his fitness while Pogba was suspended and hence the best fit for the midfield two were Herrera and Matic.

Manchester City

Manchester City’s lineup

It could have been a surprise for many to see Jesus start but it is indeed for a tactical reason. The front 3 of Sane Sterling Jesus would offer Guardiola an option to swap their positions however they wanted. The reason for this is to break the man-marking pattern that Mourinho generally could apply to stifle City’s attacking fluidity. However, with Aguero’s inclusion, the possibility of this swapping would be ruled out owing to his inability to play on the flanks while Jesus could fit seamlessly when going wide.

Man-marking system

In the initial stages of the game, it was one-way traffic with United opting to go on ‘retreat’ mode. It was the traditional two banks of four that United lined-up without the ball. However, in the name of being compact and denying space in the final third, Guardiola’s men were offered too much time on the ball for them to not cause any trouble.

One major advantage that United could enjoy was their matching numbers in midfield against City. As you can see in the image below, City’s midfield trio were matched man-to-man by United. It is a no non-sense system which would avoid confusion among the markers as the only rule was to stay with your allotted man. In truth, this did make City think and made them work to try and overcome the marking system.

United man-marked City’s midfield three man-to-man with Matic, Herrera and Lingard

Lingard was assigned to mark Fernandinho (circled red), Matic on De Bruyne (circled yellow) while Herrera was on David Silva (circled blue). This was a direct 3v3 man-to-man marking system wherein the players didn’t have to stay within any zone and simply follow their men. In fact, this was a system that served the purpose at that point as it didn’t allow any of City’s midfield maestros a lot of time and space to work with. Hence United retreating more and more was giving time only to the centre-backs, who anyway cannot potentially cause high damage. So kudos to Mourinho for passing the first test.

Guardiola’s reply: The false 9

Sterling dropped deep and played a Messi-esque role as a false 9 throughout the first half

Just like how the man-marking system across the centre of the pitch was typical Jose Mourinho, there was another move which pretty much sums up Guardiola. City did not take long to figure out the marking system and figured that the best way to counter it was by swapping positions among the attackers.

The first swap was between Jesus and Sterling as Jesus went out wide to the left and Sterling moved the center. While Sterling started operating in the middle, De Bruyne dropped deep as he has done often in the recent games.

This was not only to help build-up play but it also out-numbered the midfield-three of Matic, Herrera and Lingard. Sterling didn’t move to the centre to play as the traditional number 9 but dropped short as well to occupy Matic.

As you can see in the image below, Herrera is with his man (Silva circled blue) while Matic is also following his new man (Sterling circled yellow). Lingard, as instructed is with Fernandinho (circled red) but De Bruyne dropping deep leaves him free as all of the three United midfielders are now occupied. It was creating situations wherein it left Lingard no choice but to try and cover space of both Fernandinho and De Bruyne.

De Bruyne (on the ball) dropped further deep to allow Sterling to occupy the space in midfield, forming 4 midfielders in the centre

This gave space and time to the Belgian wizard and he almost caused damage with a couple of threatening drives with the ball right at the United defence but the potential threats were seen off. Hence, it was more of a midfield-four of Fernandinho-Silva-De Bruyne and Sterling ahead of these three with one-touch passing and quick link-up play.

Fernandinho toying United midfield

City were able to create opportunities thereafter but they could only do as much as reaching the 18-yard box and the final product always went missing. The United midfielders slowly shifted their focus onto Sterling, De Bruyne and Silva and allowing Fernandinho more time on the ball as they couldn’t outnumber City in the centre.

Fernandinho’s sublime pass to find Sterling created a clear-cut chance to put City into the lead.

The Brazilian had a field-day especially in the first half completing 48 passes at 92% accuracy and that was the most passes by any player in the first half. You may wonder if it were all just in build-up play but out of the 48 passes in the first half, there were 2 clear-cut scoring opportunities, both let down by mediocre finishing by Jesus and Sterling.

United lacked creativity

The first half didn’t really allow Mourinho’s men to see much of the ball and the Red Devils were busy chasing the ball and the shadows of the Blues. However, it took a goal from City to take the lead again in the 54th minute to make United step out and be more adventurous.

From the kick-off till the 54th minute, the ball possession was 28–72 in favour of Manchester City. But from the 55th minute till the full-time whistle, the ball possession was 47–53 again in favour of Manchester City, yet a much closer figure. Despite seeing more of the ball and City shifting their focus on defending, there is no doubt that United didn’t make the most of the 47% of ball possession.

It looked like their plan was to score only from counter attacks and they didn’t really have a plan to build-up play and reach the 18-yard box when City backed off.

Long ball attempts by Manchester United from the back.

There were umpteen long balls attempted by United from the back constantly trying to find the front three of Lukaku, Martial and Rashford. De Gea’s distribution was worrisome as most of them being aimed at Lukaku were not reaching the intended target. In the few occasions when he could find Lukaku, the Belgian striker didn’t make the best out of it and merely flicked them on to the opposition centre-backs instead of laying it off to any of the United attackers.

This made ball retention a huge problem for United and there was an absolutely visible lack of planning on this front. This is probably where they sorely missed their 100 million-talisman Paul Pogba, who could have marshalled the team going forward

United’s physicality stifled

Manchester United’s so-called “physical strength” went missing

Statistics suggested that United were, on an average 6 centimetres taller than the City side but to everyone’s surprise, City had won 19 aerial duels to United’s 14. So it is clear that the physical advantage that United had was not made use of and perhaps Fellaini’s inclusion if he was available, could have helped. It wouldn’t be an understatement to say United missed Marouane Fellaini as he could have been a partner in crime to his fellow countryman Lukaku to try and win more aerial duels from De Gea’s distribution or even as an option inside the box.

Individual errors aplenty

Lukaku’s clearance was mediocre, to say the least

For a game of this magnitude, one wouldn’t expect a lot of individual errors leading to goal-scoring opportunities. But on the contrary, we can go on to say all goals scored in the derby were of individual errors and not from the clearest chances created by both the Reds and Blues of Manchester.

All the hard work that United put in off the ball had gone in-vain when the first goal by City was tapped in by Silva from a corner where it was as Lukaku’s clearance attempt landed softly for the Spaniard to poke it home. While on the other end, it was Fabian Delph who managed to make a mess out of misread an on-coming aerial ball allowing Rashford a comfortable finish from a 1v1 situation with Ederson.

While we thought we have had enough of it from the first half, the 54th minute was another shocker with Lukaku’s clearance from a free-kick not having any elevation. It instead ricocheted of Smalling and Otamendi has a simple enough finish.

We could have had yet another comedy at the other end with Delph making an absolute mess of a ball bouncing awkwardly and somehow it went right through his legs. This led to an almost 1v1 situation for Rashford who gave his everything behind the shot but Ederson stood strong to parry it for a corner.


With two master tacticians heading into the game as arch rivals, it was tactically poised and it sure didn’t let the fans down on that front. As far as the goals were concerned, it sure did spring a surprise that they were all a result of errors or bad luck and not merely from the world-class talents available in abundance on the pitch. The feeling right now is that it’s Manchester City’s title to lose with a massive 11-point lead around Christmas. However, it’s a funny league and at no point can we be sure of anything, especially regarding the title, until all is said and done.

Images sources:



One Nil

What does a team need to win a football game? 1–0! How does the team do it? Well you can find out right here in, what will be soon, a library of tactics.