At the start of the season, many thought this Manchester derby would be a title decider. But due to their poor campaigns, despite heavy investment, both clubs were battling it out in search of a top four spot and Champions League qualification.
There was less pressure on José Mourinho’s side as they still have the Europa League, which could provide an alternative route to Europe’s elite competition. Meanwhile, Man City’s F.A. Cup semi-final defeat to Arsenal last weekend ensured Pep Guardiola will finish without a trophy and outside of the top two for the first time in his managerial career.
Given Mourinho’s preferred tactics against his rivals, namely Liverpool away and Chelsea at home, there was an anticipation that this derby would fail to entertain the spectators, unlike the corresponding fixture in September. Alas, the pragmatic Portuguese manager didn’t disappoint, much to the neutral’s disappointment.
Guardiola opted for a more conventional right-back with Pablo Zabaleta preferred to Jesús Navas so to enhance the defensive qualities of a backline that may be vulnerable to the counter-attack. Raheem Sterling, meanwhile, started instead of the injured David Silva, which saw Kevin De Bruyne play a more central role.
Antonio Valencia returned to the starting line-up in place of Ashley Young while Michael Carrick replaced the injured Paul Pogba in midfield. In attack, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Marcus Rashford were brought in for Jesse Lingard and club captain, Wayne Rooney.
Stifling the opponent
Not for the first-time this season, Mourinho deployed tactics designed to stifle the attacking opportunities of his opponent. This approach has driven plenty of discussions as to whether he needs to be so defensive in search of success given the club he is managing and the players he has at his disposal.
Thursday’s stalemate was as anticlimactic as another fixture excessively hyped up by Sky earlier in the season. ‘Red Monday’ between Liverpool and Man Utd last October felt more like BoRed Monday and this derby wasn’t much different.
As the table above shows, in both games, United relinquished possession in order to set up deep defensive blocks which meant fewer passes, especially in the attacking third. Thursday’s match saw a particularly low pass completion score of less than 70% too.
Against City, the Red Devils scored their lowest possession stats since Opta started recording the data in 2003. Their previous record was from the draw at Anfield.
To be fair to the trophy laden Mourinho, his tactics weren’t devoid of any attacking intent. The inclusion of pacey forwards Anthony Martial and Rashford suggested the counter-attack was a viable and potentially lethal option. But the latter was left isolated in the second-half as the former and Mkhitaryan ended up playing more as wing-backs.
The lack of attacking penetration by the visitors was evident in the number of attempts on goal. In fact, Sergio Aguero alone had three times as many shots as Man Utd (nine to three). The game would have been very different (and better) had the Argentinian converted his early opportunity from close-range instead of hitting the post.
Despite United’s few attempts, they could easily have taken the lead when Herrera had a free header at the far-post on the stroke of half-time. Aside from the miss, the Spaniard did deliver a solid performance as he provided ample protection for United’s defenders. Impressively, the former Athletic Bilbao midfielder attempted nearly a third of his side’s 38 tackles (12).
Man City were struggling to break their opponents down even though they had 19 attempts at David de Gea’s goal. Unfortunately for the home side, nearly all of their attempts were at least 12 yards away. Silva’s absence was proving a bigger loss as the game progressed.
Boost and Blow
On a more positive note, Gabriel Jesus’ return will bring a welcome lift ahead of the final stretch of games. Three of those remaining five fixtures are at the Etihad (Crystal Palace, Leicester and West Brom), which should give the Citizens and their young Brazilian striker an advantage over their rivals.
Marouane Fellaini’s stupidity in being lured in by Aguero for a sending off with 10 minutes remaining will see the Belgian suspended for United’s following three-matches: Swansea (h), Arsenal (a), and Tottenham (a).
This draw did, however, extend Man Utd’s impressive unbeaten run to 24-games. Their last league defeat was six months ago on October 23rd as Mourinho’s return to Stamford Bridge ended with a 4-0 defeat Chelsea. Here’s how the top seven have done in their last 24 league games:
As you can see, despite going on such a long unbeaten run, nearly drawing as many games as they have won has seen Man Utd only rank third in the table. They’re as far behind Tottenham in terms of points as they are ahead of City – a side who started brilliantly but has stuttered since.
Mourinho is right to be proud of the unbeaten record, particularly in this competitive league, but nearly all fans would instead rather the point tallies of Tottenham or Chelsea.
There is at least a defensive foundation to build upon next season which has seen United concede only 12 goals and keep 12 clean sheets during this period. Preventing an opponent from scoring more than one goal is impressive, but the lack of firepower must be addressed as they sit more than eight goals below the average.
Man Utd will need more wins than draws in their remaining fixtures if they’re going to pip two of their rivals to a top four spot. Mourinho’s talk of prioritising the Europa League over a top four finish is more mind games than reality as is often the case with the deflective manager. He would undoubtedly love to prevent two of Liverpool, Man City and Arsenal from enjoying the riches and prestige that comes with Champions League qualification and playing out a draw on Thursday night only validates this.
But their fixture list on paper at least is far harder than those aforementioned rivals, in addition to the increasing number of injuries testing a very deep squad.
Man City should be content with the point, but disappointed not to have inflicted some damage on their neighbours and ending their unbeaten run. Failing to make the most of their possession has become an unwanted theme this season and Guardiola will be looking to make some big changes in the summer. His remarks during the post-match interview already hinted to the obvious issues at full-back with ageing legs his only current options.
They travel to Middlesbrough on Sunday in search of the three-points that are becoming increasingly valuable as this season draws (hopefully more entertainingly than this game) to an end.
EPL Results (Gameweek 34):
Bournemouth 4-0 Middlesbrough
Hull 2-0 Watford
Swansea 2-0 Stoke
West Ham 0-0 Everton
Burnley 0-2 Man Utd
Liverpool 1-2 Crystal Palace
Chelsea 4-2 Southampton
Arsenal 1-0 Leicester
Middlesbrough 1-0 Sunderland
Crystal Palace 0-1 Tottenham
Man City 0-0 Man Utd