Connect with us

Tactics & Analysis

The Tactics Board- United lost in a sea of Sky Blues

Manchester United came into this game only needing a point, and it appears that Sir Alex Ferguson picked his team with this being the goal. The Red Devils came into this game with a very conservative strategy and line-up. United’s strategy works, congesting the middle of the pitch and City struggled on the attack with their main attacking avenue blocked. They were left trying to play crosses into the box, but their forwards were badly selected for this task. United’s strategy worked for them until City took the lead from a corner in first half stoppage time. City’s goal now left the league champions chasing a goal with a very defensive set-up. Ferguson made changes on the hour mark, but Mancini countered his moves and ensured City their 3 points.


Manchester United vs. Manchester City

Etihad Stadium – April 30th, 2012

Starting Formation-

Manchester United-
Much has been made of Sir Alex Ferguson’s selection for United’s most important game of the season. Instead of playing their attacking 4-4-2(4-4-1-1), Ferguson opted to go with a 4-5-1 which he has used frequently in European competitions. With Jonny Evans ill, and Rafael starting on the bench, there were 2 changes on the back line from the team that allowed Everton to score 4 goals and caused United to drop 2 essential points. Phil Jones got the start at right-back, Chris Smalling started at center-back alongside Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra started again at left-back. Behind this line, David De Gea got the start in the goal.

Antonio Valencia was left on the bench, so Nani started out on the right-wing, and Ryan Giggs started on the left-wing. In the middle of the pitch, Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes started deep in the midfield while Park Ji-Sung started ahead of them. Alone up front, Wayne Rooney was given the tough assignment of working alone up front to attack a strong City defense.

Manchester City-
Roberto Mancini came out in City’s standard 4-2-3-1. With everybody fit, he had plenty of options to choose from for the game. His squad was unchanged from the team that beat Wolves 2-0 a week earlier.

Joe Hart has started all league games for City this year. In front of him, City’s first choice center-back pairing of Joleon Lescott and captain Vincent Kompany got the start. Gael Clichy started at left-back, and Pablo Zabaleta got the start ahead of Micah Richards at right-back. Gareth Barry and Yaya Toure started in the holding midfield role. Ahead of him, Carlos Tevez got the start while Samir Nasri was on the right and David Silva on the left. Carlo Tevez’s Argentinian teammate Sergio Aguero started as the striker up front.

Starting Formation (Solid Lines=Attacking Movement | Dashed Lines=Defensive Movement)

Key Points-

  • Sir Alex Ferguson opts for a conservative line-up, focusing on stopping City’s attack.
  • Park Ji-Sung man-marks Yaya Toure, but struggles with the power and pace of the Ivorian midfielder.
  • United stacks the middle of the pitch and City struggle for scoring chances.
  • Kompany gives City a lead from a corner just before halftime, provided by poor marking by Chris Smalling.
  • United forced to chase tying goal in second half, but Mancini matches Ferguson’s changes to deny United any openings.


Red Devils focus on defending

With Manchester United only needing 1 point from the game to stay out front in the title race, it appears that Sir Alex Ferguson came out with the intention of defending deep and hold out for a draw. With a 5 man midfield, United hoped that they would be able to prevent the incisive passing that City uses to create scoring opportunity. Playing Park Ji-Sung was a surprise, as he hasn’t played since United lost to Athletic Bilbao and United had lost the previous 3 games he started. He played as the most advanced midfielder in United’s midfield triangle, and his responsibility was to mark Yaya Toure (See A). He needed to stay goal side of Toure, and ensure that he wasn’t able to come forward and overrun United on the edge of the box. Unfortunately, the South Korean midfielder seemed to struggle with match fitness and he had problems dealing with the power and pace of the Ivorian International.

United's defending strategy

Man City's first-half final third passes

Ryan Giggs got the start on the left wing, but he played very narrow to help defend the middle of the midfield.  His positioning created a lopsided diamond in the middle of the pitch for United (See B). His positioning inside helped to congest the middle of the pitch and City struggled for space to operate their normal attacks in. Unfortunately, this tactic combined with Giggs lack of mobility meant Patrice Evra defending the left side alone. City tried to take advantage during the first half, and their right side became their primary avenue of attack through Samir Nasri and Pablo Zabaleta. Evra played well defensively, but he occasionally got overwhelmed when City could get 2v1 advantages.

United’s line-up suggested that they were going to focus on sitting deep and defending strong, but that’s now how the game started. As the game started, United pressed up the field with Rooney, Nani and Giggs. United got some of their best attacks of the game in the early first half, with Nani getting off a shot that went off target and Smalling getting a header blocked. It might have been nerves, but after the first 10 minutes, United started to defend deeper and absorb the pressure from City in the hopes of springing a quick counter and getting into the space behind City’s advancing fullbacks.

City controls possession but struggles for chances

With United sitting back on defense, it was left to City to attack and unlock the Red Devils defense. Since returning from his six month golfing sabbatical, Carlos Tevez has been able to quickly find his form and return to Mancini’s starting lineup. With 4 goals and 2 assists in the previous 3 games, he has played well up front with Nasri and Aguero. To close him down, Sir Alex Ferguson used Michael Carrick to shut him down. He didn’t man mark him, but he did sit deeper on defense to ensure that the former United player didn’t get any space between the lines to operate, and it worked well.

In front of him, Sergio Aguero struggled as Ferdinand was the man tasked with marking him, with Chris Smalling playing as the cover defender. Aguero had 45 touches, but he was dispossessed 19 times and he took 5 shots but none of them were on target.

Manchester United’s strategy of stacking the center of the field to block City’s main attack strategy worked during the first half. City has struggled at times this year when teams can shut down their attacks through the center of the pitch. Out wide, they had Samir Nasri on the right side and David Silva on the left side. Both of these wide players look to cut in and join in the attack through the center, so City is dependent on their fullbacks to provide their width. This leaves City struggling for width, and without Dzerko in the lineup, they don’t have any target man up front who can win aerial duels in open play. This was the same problems that Barcelona ran into in the Champions League against Chelsea.

In the first half, their attacks overwhelming started on the right side. Due to Giggs playing so narrow, Nasri and Zabaleta found plenty of space to operate in. With this space, Nasri was able to get a running start when taking on defenders, and won 4 out 5 dribbles. Zabaleta was very effective making overlapping runs, but for all the success that City they were unable to get any scoring chances in the box. Struggling in the middle, City tried playing crosses into the box from the right side. With Sergio Aguero at 5’9”, and Carlos Tevez at 5’8”, neither player had any success winning headers against Chris Smalling and Rio Ferdinand. They tried 26 crosses in the game, and were only successful on 1 of them. Unfortunately, that’s all it took in this game.


Lacking a counter strike, United left to hold on

Sir Alex’s strategy was to sit deep and counter quickly to get into the space behind City’s fullbacks. Wayne Rooney started alone up front, with Nani playing farther up the field on the right side for United. One advantage of this was it pinned Gael Clichy back for City, limiting his attacking contributions. When United were able to gather possession, they were slow to transition to the attack and they struggled to get players forward.

Alone up front, Wayne Rooney was left with very little service. Vincent Kompany was responsible for marking him as he has in previous matchups. This meant that attempting to play long balls to Rooney met with little success, and the Belgian easily was able to beat him in the air. Kompany picked up a soft yellow card in the 18th minute, and had to be careful the rest of the game on defense. He started to get more assistance from Joleon Lescott as the game wore on.

As the first half went on, Rooney got more frustrated with the lack of service and the tight defense from City. He was unable to hold up play, as he got little support. His attempts to link up with Park and Nani had little success, and he got frustrated as the game went along.

City strikes

With halftime nearing, most United fans will admit that City looked the better side. This game wouldn’t be classified as a great tactical chess game. One side sat and defended deep, while the other team was left struggling to unlock a tightly packed defense. The game turned into an attrition battle, with both sides seeing who will make the first mistake, and this ended up being the team from the red half of Manchester.

In open play, there were very few chances created but both teams seemed to struggle on set pieces. United created a couple of chances playing short corners, but it was City who took advantage of a corner in first-half stoppage time.

Just before halftime, City lined up for their 6th corner of the game. Smalling lined up to mark Kompany, while Ferdinand lined up against Lescott in the box. Vincent Kompany made a smart move in the box, using Ferdinand and Lescott to screen Smalling, who had to cut in front of them while Kompany went behind them. David Silva curled the ball in the box, and before Smalling could recover his position on Kompany, the ball went over his head and Kompany powered the ball into the net with his head.

Second half starts and United has to chase

Down 1-0 after the first half, Manchester United were going to now need to make changes to try and get the goal back. The second half started, but Sir Alex Ferguson didn’t make any changes to his side. On the other side, Mancini made one slightly puzzling change to his side. He had Samir Nasri and David Silva swap sides, even though Nasri was having success attacking on the right side (See Picture). Perhaps the Italian coach wanted Silva, the better player, to operate in the same space but this strategy failed. At right-back, Pablo Zabaleta started to play more defensive and limit his forward runs.

In the 58th minute, Sir Alex Ferguson made his first change. He took off a struggling Park Ji-Sung and on came Danny Welbeck. With this substitution, United also switched to their more standard attacking 4-4-1-1. Danny Welbeck played up front, and Rooney dropped in behind him.

This change meant that City’s center-backs were no longer responsible for marking Wayne Rooney. Gareth Barry stayed deep and took over covering Rooney, while City retained a 2v1 advantage on Danny Welbeck. By having Barry cover Rooney, it opened up more space for Carrick and Scholes to operate in.

To counter this problem, Mancini took off Carlos Tevez and replaced him with Nigel de Jong. City dropped into a defensive 4-5-1, with de Jong marking Wayne Rooney and Barry went back to shutting down any space for Carrick and Scholes. Gareth Barry and Nigel de Jong played as the deep holding midfielders, and Yaya Toure moved up to become the front player in the midfield triangle.

Yaya Toure moved up the pitch, and United removed the player who was responsible for shutting him down, Park Ji-Sung. This gave him more space to operate in, and in the last 30 minutes of the game, he became City’s strongest attacking option. He used his pace to run the ball at United and operate between United’s midfield and defensive line. He managed a couple powerful shots, but luckily they went wide of the mark.

Mancini counters Fergie’s moves

Still chasing a goal, Sir Alex took off a tiring Paul Scholes and replaced him Antonio Valencia. The Ecuadorian took up his position on the right wing, while Nani moved to the left wing and Ryan Giggs moved into the central midfield. This move brought more pace and movement into United’s attack, but further weakened their defense in the middle of the pitch.

Mancini soon responded to United’s change, bringing on Micah Richards for David Silva. City now switched to playing a 5 man back line, with Kompany at the center, Lescott on the left and Richards on the right. This move worked to leave Valencia short of space, and he had very little impact once he came on.

Even as time was running out, United still struggled to control possession. They were unable to get the ball forward, and City would repeatedly play the ball to Yaya Toure who was able to outmuscle United and waste the remaining time.


The story of this game was the starting line-up and strategy. Sir Alex Ferguson came out with a conservative line-up, and an even more conservative game plan. Ferguson determined that United’s best chance was to stack the defense and hope to catch City out with a quick counter-attack. Manchester United defended the game well, blocking City’s preferred attack strategy and they struggled to come up with an alternative attack. The problem laid in United’s attack. When they regained possession, they were slow to transition and get up field to attack. Wayne Rooney was left stranded up the field with no help.

There was no point in the game when United looked like they could have scored a goal. Their defense played great, but one mistake on a corner just before halftime was costly. Going behind a goal, United now had to change strategy and try to go on the attack. But instead of making the changes right at halftime, Ferguson waited until the 58th minute before finally making the change. Perhaps he was afraid of giving up another goal, but this was also 13 minutes that United could have used to attack.

Shots for the entire game

Roberto Mancini did well to counter Sir Alex’s changes in the second half. Ferguson would make a change to try and gain an advantage, but Mancini was quick to make a change to neutralize the possible advantage. With United needing a goal in the second half, they were unable to muster even one shot on goal.

Some people are blaming Chris Smalling for losing the title, but he played a great game in a pressure packed situation. If you want somebody to blame for not winning the title, look at the 4-4 draw to Everton or the loss to Wigan. Now tied on points, City has an 8 goal advantage with 2 games left.

Written by RangeRooney –

Latest News