Quick Thoughts on the Manchester Derby

Note – A very lightly edited re-upload of a blog written in the hours after City’s win at Old Trafford in December 2017. I include it here both to display my interest in sports-writing, as well as proof that I totally saw Liverpool’s three wins over City coming. 

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Quick Thoughts on the Manchester Derby

City have just claimed three points, and in all likelihood the Title, by beating United 2 –  1 at Old Trafford. Here are three thoughts on the game

The Limits of the Counter-attack – Mourinho clearly saw the Arsenal game last week as a dress rehearsal for City’s visit this week. Much like last week, he had his team sit deep, deny city the space to run into, and crowd the penalty area. His offensive plan was to counter transition extremely quickly once they regained possession, and then rely on Lukaku’s intelligent runs and the pace of Martial and Rashford to create goal – scoring opportunities.

United’s counter was deadly at the Emirates but today, it didn’t really work. United only registered 8 shots in the whole game, many of which came during the final half hour when city allowed them more possession and territory. There are several reasons for this lack of efficiency

Firstly, city’s defensive plan is to ‘counter the counter’; they aim to dispossess the opponents high up the pitch, or intercept the passes that lead to counter attacks. They are bloody good at it. As Thierry Henry pointed out on commentary, City can afford to have so many players up front because they are positioned not just to attack, but to prevent counter attacks. This is the key factor that leads to city’s low goal’s conceded despite their offensive style. They prevent counter attacks before they even happen.

Secondly, without Pogba United could not reproduce the fantastic transitions that got them three goals against Arsenal. Pogba is a brilliant creator of counter-attacks; with speed, power and accurate passing, he starts counters, and his quality link-up play allows him to help finish them as well. There was a Pogba shaped hole in the middle of United’s attempted Counter attacks, one that left them without the quality we’ve come to expect.

Thirdly, counter attacking, like any other offensive ploy, can become predictable. City knew what United wanted to do going forward, and they clearly prepared to stop it. Even when United got the ball into the final third, the city players seemed to know how to react. I suspect Guardiola had drilled these defensive setups all week. By relying so heavily on the counter, Mourinho was out-manoeuvred tactically.

Unfortunate Lukaku – Poor Romelu. His premier league goals well has run a little dry, and he is being compared, unfavourably, to many of the other new offensive stars of the premier league. Salah and Morata have started brilliantly, and Lacazette has caught up with Lukaku’s offensive output. Fans are becoming much more critical of the Belgian striker, even calling for him to be dropped.

He certainly had an unfortunate day. He spent the whole of the first half isolated, unable to have a meaningful impact on proceedings. His first notable contribution was to accidentally set up David Silva for a scrappy opener. When he repeated the error in the second half to gift Otamendi another goal, it was clearly not his day.

Lukaku has been far from terrible over the last few games. His link up play with other strikers, particularly Lingard and Martial has been great, and could well have scored in the second half, where it not for Ederson’s brave – neck save. Unfortunately the stars did not align for Lukaku, and the harsh narrative of his decline will continue.

Why are City so dominant? – As Paul from Manchester texted into the BBC sport page, the fact that there are five English Teams through to the knockouts in the champions league makes the concurrent fact of City’s dominance in the Premier League hard to understand. The teams competing with city are not short of quality, either on the pitch or on the managerial bench. Despite this, Pep’s side are sailing into the Christmas period 11 points clear. Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and now United have all been unable to so much as dent City’s run, with all of them falling to defeat.

My sense is that Pep’s tweaked City have the edge not just in terms of personnel, but also tactically. No manager has been able to effectively stop or overcome the possession, pressing and counter-countering game of city. The tactic of Chelsea, Arsenal and United has been to attempt to counter, and cede possession, but it has failed to work for any of the three sides. An answer may exist in the unlikely shape of Klopp’s Liverpool, who were beaten by five goals.

While Liverpool ultimately collapsed in that game, after Mane’s deserved sending off, they had troubled city beforehand. They pressed intelligently and selectively, and prevented city from ever looking truly comfortable on the ball. They still went down one nil before Mane’s saw red, but that match had the makings of an interesting tactical duel. Will Liverpool be able to redo their attempt at Anfield, and with success? Or will another strong pressing side, such as Tottenham, be able to show the rest of the League how to trouble city? If such a model of how to play against the leaders does not arise, City’s surge may be truly unstoppable, and another invincibles season seems possible.

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