The much anticipated match between the two favourites for this season’s title took place at Old Trafford on Saturday and unlike a couple of Jose Mourinho’s selections, it didn’t disappoint.
Pep Guardiola replaced the suspended Sergio Aguero with back-up striker, Kelechi Iheanacho, as a mark of the his side’s intent. There was also a debut for Claudio Bravo in the Man City goal.
Mourinho gave Henrik Mkhitaryan and Jesse Lingard their first league starts of the season with Anthony Martial and Juan Mata dropping to the bench. The former Chelsea manager also resisted calls for Marcus Rashford to be included following the young forward’s hat-trick for England’s U21 side during the international break.
There was clear confusion as to how Mourinho wanted his team to set-up. United were never going to have much of the ball and the 40-60% possession in City’s favour confirmed that. But the United players didn’t seem to know when they should press or back off their opponents.
The first goal was a prime example as captain Wayne Rooney berated Mkhitaryan for not pressurising Aleksandar Kolarov. The Serbian’s long-pass down field was flicked on by Iheanacho – who Eric Bailly failed to challenge – for the speedy Kevin De Bruyne to nip in ahead of the flat-footed Daley Blind before breaking the deadlock with a composed finish.
City’s deserved second goal was the result of United being pinned deep into their penalty area after chasing shadows for the first 35 minutes. Iheanacho’s tap-in looked like it should have been offside but replays showed Blind was playing him on having tried to dispossess De Bruyne earlier.
The second half was very different with Mourinho insisting his side press high up the field. It was a risky move with United’s players going man for man on City’s goal-kicks and refusing Bravo the time and space he was afforded during the first half. Whilst this change of approach forced far more unsuccessful long balls against a physically imposing side, it did leave plenty of gaps that City failed to capitalise on due to a lack of ruthlessness in the final third.
Fourteen of City’s 30 long balls were attempted within their defensive third during the first 45 minutes. But 21 from 26 were attempted during the second period. An increase in volume and decrease in success rate.
Bravo but no Encore
One of the biggest differences between the first and second half was the time and space awarded to debutant Bravo. The Chilean keeper enjoyed a great deal of freedom during his first half in English football with 24 successful passes from 25 attempts (96%) – a third of which were from outside his area. It’s these sort of figures that persuaded Guardiola to sign him from Barcelona and ship former no.1 Joe Hart to Torino.
But the second half saw a dramatic drop in his pass completion with just seven from 19 (36.8%). Just five were from outside his penalty box, of which two were successful.
Clearly the City players were willing to make use of his passing skills with 30 back-passes compared to United’s nine.
Of course, Bravo’s game was far from perfect, most notably the error that led to Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s well-taken goal minutes before half-time. It was a mistake that really should have been avoided through simple communication and aerial dominance. He also produced a desperate challenge on Rooney following a heavy touch that could have resulted in a penalty. But he did, as Guardiola pointed out, continue to try and play in the same way despite the slip-ups and high pressure environment.
A similarity could be drawn to Victor Valdes’ performance for Guardiola’s Barcelona in 2011 when they defeated Mourinho’s Real Madrid 3-1 at the Bernabeau. Valdes made a mistake that led to the opening goal after just 23 seconds but he still continued to try and pass the ball out from the back to start the attacks.
Guardiola praised Bravo’s personality and character for his intentions given the circumstances just as he did with Valdes that night. He’ll just hope for no repeat of the first goal.
Let Otamendi have the ball
That seemed to be United’s intention, with Gary Neville making reference to it during the first half. But the Argentinian’s stats and all-round performance suggested the plan backfired. No starting player had a better pass completion rate than Otamendi’s 90.9% and whilst he dropped from 36/38 to 14/17 in the second half – another sign of United’s belated pressing – he still dominated in tackles (5/5), blocked crosses (3), interceptions (5) and headed clearances (3/3). It was a monster performance from a player who could really start to settle in England under Guardiola’s stewardship.
His centre-back partner, John Stones, had a decent first Manchester derby. The former Everton defender often switched with Fernandinho as the pivot during the first half when City were trying to build from the back. It’s part of the reason Guardiola was so keen to bring him to the blue side of Manchester but that movement was far more restricted during the second half.
Battle of Midfield
City had regularly got between United’s hesitant lines and won a lot of individual battles despite the physical stature of Mourinho’s men. Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini in the centre of midfield were expected to make it a physical challenge for Fernandinho and the diminutive David Silva but both performed excellently throughout to control the game and limit their opponents to hopeful balls in the air.
Mourinho will need to rethink his central midfield when his side comes up against other rivals at the top end of the league. Pogba is far less effective as part of a two-man midfield than he is in a three. But the Rooney conundrum seems to force the world’s most expensive player out of his best position. Where the England captain should play is beginning to be a major concern (unless you’re Sam Allardyce who can’t tell him where to play). His tiredness and frustration was summed up by his rolled down socks as the game entered its final moments.
Half-time subs too late
Mourinho himself admitted he could have subbed two or three players after 20 minutes but he didn’t want to “kill those players”. For those watching, it was pretty obvious that two of the players he was ‘saving’ were Lingard and Mkhitaryan.
Their inclusions were a surprise with many expecting at least one wing to have out and out pace in the shape of Martial or Rashford so to try and hit City on the counter.
Lingard’s performance was especially underwhelming when compared to his City equivalent, Nolito. The intelligent Spaniard had a lot more joy down United’s right than Lingard did on the opposite side.
Both Mkhitaryan and Lingard were put out of their misery at the break with Rashford and Ander Herrera their replacements.
Man City were irresistible during the opening 40 minutes and should have made their territorial dominance count for more than a 2-1 lead at half-time. Mourinho accepted that his initial tactics and team’s performance could not go on any longer by making changes in both tactics and personnel. The high press had an obvious impact on City’s attempts to build from the back but it also left a lot of spaces behind their midfield with the away side sometimes approaching David De Gea’s goal with a numerical advantage over a backpedaling and stretched defence.
De Bruyne was rightly awarded man of the match and was unfortunate not to seal victory late on when his shot struck the inside of the near-post and spun wide of the far-corner.
A candidate for man of the match was Fernandinho whose importance to this side should not be underestimated. The Brazilian appears to be the equivalent of Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso during Guardiola’s tenure at Barcelona and Bayern Munich respectively.
Mourinho needs to rethink his approach against other rivals while Guardiola’s City look like a daunting prospect for any opponent, especially as there’s still room for improvement and we’re just several games into his reign.
EPL Results (Gameweek 4):
Man Utd 1-2 Man City
Bournemouth 1-0 West Brom
Arsenal 2-1 Southampton
Burnley 1-1 Hull
Middlesbrough 1-2 Crystal Palace
Stoke 0-4 Tottenham
West Ham 2-4 Watford
Liverpool 4-1 Leicester
Swansea 2-2 Chelsea
Sunderland 0-3 Everton