The Manchester Derby was a tale of two halves tactically, but equally easy for Manchester City

The American Cityzen
6 min readNov 8, 2021

Manchester City’s dominance over Manchester United was methodical. It was easy, comprehensive, and the most lopsided Derby in Manchester City’s favor in history. It was clear that Manchester City were the better team in every area of the pitch rather than just a simple win of tactics. City worked harder, played more cohesive and sucked the soul out of Old Trafford from the first whistle. This article, however, will focus specifically on the tactical wins for Manchester City on Saturday, which seemed quite simple. The first half and second half were both equally dominant, but in different ways.

First Half

It was clear from recent matches that United was going to line up with a back 3 with two wing backs, namely Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka. This was their formation to start the Derby:

This formation showed one thing before kickoff: United wanted to be solid in the middle defensively and hit Manchester City on the counter-attack. However, City easily combatted this formation in the first half. Manchester City played a nominal 4–3–3 formation and use a midfielder as a false 9 with two wide wingers, Phil Foden and Gabriel Jesus in this case. The battle of the first half was won out wide specifically. Foden and Jesus played high and wide up the pitch, which pinned back Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, forcing United to essentially play a back 5. At that point, United did not have any width defensively throughout the rest of the pitch. Fred, McTominay and Bruno would have to be pulled out of position to cover any wide areas in front of the back 5 because those areas would be vacant for City’s fullbacks or midfielders to run into. Greenwood and Ronaldo also did not close down any wide spaces, and rather, stayed narrow and high up the pitch. The problem United faced was that they allowed for one of City’s best playmakers to have loads of space: João Cancelo. Both goals were created by City’s fullbacks having a lot of space and time on the ball. Below is all of the touches taken by Kyle Walker and Cancelo in the first half.

As you can see, on the left side, United made it easy for City to find Cancelo and create numerous chances. United’s strategy was to keep the middle of the pitch compact with three center-backs and three midfielders, so City reacted by playing the ball wide and letting Cancelo be the main playmaker. The strategy clearly worked, as Cancelo was the main creator for both goals. It would be hard to call this a tactical masterclass by Pep Guardiola, as Cancelo has been one of City’s main playmakers at left back this year. This could be considered, however, a big flaw in tactics from Manchester United. João Cancelo has been one of the most dangerous attacking outlets in the world and he was given acres of space to operate. Although City scored two goals, David De Gea made a handful of spectacular saves to keep it that way. Contrary to many people’s beliefs that Pep Guardiola only wants to work through the midfield to build-up, City were more than content with finding Cancelo in wide spaces and letting him take control of the match.

Second Half

The second half of the match was equally dominant for Manchester City, but in a very different way. Like the first half, United created very little and City controlled the flow of the half from start to finish. City’s dominance, however, was shown a little differently than in the first half. In the first half, the attack flowed through Cancelo as United set out to keep the middle compact and not let City pass through them. Rather, City went around them rather than through them. In the second half, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made a tactical shift at halftime to prevent the same dominance out wide by subbing off Eric Bailly for Jadon Sancho. United’s formation changed to a 4–2–3–1 to look like this:

United’s tactical reaction to having Cancelo creating loads of chances was to change the formation to give more cover out wide so that City did not have numerical superiority. However, this shift by United opened up space in midfield. Rather than having three center backs and three midfielders in front of them, United took away a center back and moved Bruno Fernandes up higher. Greenwood also moved wide so only Ronaldo was up high rather than both of them. It seemed like a logical shift for United since they were getting destroyed in wide areas, but City moved to dominate midfield given their numerical superiority. Rather than playing through Cancelo, City played through Rodri, De Bruyne, Gundogan and Bernardo. Here is a map of City’s four midfielders’ touches in the first half:

As you can see, the midfielders completed a lot of touches in the wide areas where the open space was when United played in a back 5. The clusters occurred in those wide spaces to pull United’s midfielders and center-backs out of position. Here is the map of City’s midfielders’ touches in the second half:

The difference between the two is staggering in that the clusters of touches are much more spread out through the middle of the pitch. United forced City to play wide in the first half, and they coped easily. United helped them with very little intensity or organization off the ball, but the tactical shift to play outside was easy. Even more alarming for United (and promising for City) is that when they tried to address their deficiencies in the second half, City dominated just as easily in midfield passing the ball around at ease. In situations like this, Manchester City’s fluid midfield thrived as much as ever. Essentially, Fred and McTominay had the task of keeping track of Kevin De Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan and Bernardo Silva as they moved all throughout midfield. United seemingly could not get anywhere near the ball, and it almost seemed as if City were toying with them. City did not really even try to go for a third goal in the second half except for a couple of times.

Manchester City embarrassed United in many ways. One of them was tactically, where Manchester City made simple shifts to counteract how United setup against them. No matter how United setup, City had a simple answer and executed it to perfection. At no point was Manchester City even remotely uncomfortable, and that comes down to their organization and effort against United’s lack thereof.

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The American Cityzen

I’m a City supporter providing analysis and thoughts on all things City