Tactical Analysis: Manchester United vs Manchester City

By Luismi Loro

15-December-2020 on Analysis

10 minute read

In our weekly series of tactical analysis, professional analyst Luismi Loro uses Nacsport, in conjunction with KlipDraw to break down some of the weekend’s biggest games.


Manchester City vs Manchester United...one of the world's great derbies. With both teams sitting mid-table and desperate for a full 3 points to carry them up to a position in which they could challenge for the top, who would prevail? Well, no-one...but that doesn't mean it wasn't a fascinating tactical battle between Solskjær and Guardiola's men.


Over to Luismi for his analysis…

Note: This article was translated from Spanish and pics are captioned in Spanish. We have provided a translation for captions in italics beneath each picture.



This was the 183rd Manchester derby and the first one to be played behind closed doors. Both teams, sitting mid-table at the start of the match, wanted to consolidate their positions in the league and try to get into touching position of the top spot.


With the Premier so evenly matched at the moment, with many teams contesting for the title, both Manchester teams needed a full 3 points to get them back into contention.


That wasn’t to be, with the match ending in a goalless draw, but how did the tactical battle play out? Let’s take a look at this battle between Solskjær and Guardiola...


Keys Points


Looking for Domination with High Pressure


The key tactic for both teams was to apply high pressure in order to steal the ball as soon as possible and try to dominate the game.


United started in a 4-3-3 (4-3-1-2) with Rashford and Greenwood applying pressure to the central defenders and Bruno sidling up to Rodri and Fernandinho in the midfield area.


They forced City out wide by closing the passing lanes on the inside. City’s centre-backs only had the option of playing wide, often to the left back, Cencelo. These were the moments United were waiting for, pushing forward with right wing back, Wan-Bissaka, to match up with Cancelo on the outside and drown out City.


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High pressure by United, wing back vs wing back


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How did City overcome this pressure?


Their solution was to play Cancelo very low, giving him time to turn and execute a move. Because United were pushing so high with their wing back, there was ample room for City play with on the right hand side. Movement behind Wan-Bissaka was clear, with Sterling getting plenty of space to work with or, if not him, Gabriel or De Buyrne would move out wide to collect. This situation exposed United’s central defence, forcing them to play man-to-man, thus allowing City to manipulate them, pushing and pulling them and opening up gaps in the defence.


When defending, United lined up in a 4-4-2 with Greenwood ready to fall back into the middle, especially as City linked up in a trio and Wan-Bissaka kept pushing Cancelo.


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United at 4-4-2 in low block with Greenwood pushing City's central defence to form 4-3-3


City constantly took advantage of the free space afforded them to attack the area, especially in the first half. The poor cover that Wan-Bissaka received led to several clear opportunities to score, none of which City could convert.


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City attacking to the right of United in the zone of Greenwood and Wan-Bissaka


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City enjoying space behind Wan-Bissaka


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In the 2nd half, United covered themselves much better. Despite continuing with the same approach, City couldn’t find the same amount of space as they did previously. This was thanks to the great defensive work of United, where McTominay would drop back from midfield into defence in order to cover defence when Wan-Bissaka pushed forward, preventing 1v1 situations. A simple but effective solution to their first half woes.


In attack, City became bogged down and had very few scoring opportunities, despite the fact that Guardiola made some changes, bringing on Torres to open up the field and create more 1v1 situations. Torres tried, but was ultimately unsuccessful.


As for the high pressure of Man City, we can say that starting from a 4-4-2 with Gabriel and De Bruyne pushing the central defence and covering passing lanes with midfielders, they formed a diamond with Rodri in central midfield. If the ball went right, Rodri would swing to that area area and if it went left, Fernandinho would be the one to swing.


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High pressure in 4-4-2 diamond


How did United try to overcome this situation?


United tried to make space by stretching Greenwood to attract Cancelo, lowering Wan-Bissaka to attract Sterling and releasing Fernandes who, from midfield, attacked the wing at the free zone.


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Fernandes waiting on the wing with three possible passing options en route


United occasionally managed to get into this space early on, but City soon adjusted this tactical variant with Rodri and every time the ball went wide, they tilted to follow Bruno’s movement so he couldn’t turn.


When this was the case, the United midfielders were released from helping Gabriel and De Brunye so they dropped back to rejoin the team and help cover the passing lanes.


There was very little fluidity of play due to space being scarce and a high precision of passing being needed.


In the lower middle block, City formed a clear 4-4-2 and United positioned players between the lines, looking for space with Pogba and Fernandes.


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City in 4-4-2 in the medium block


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United’s best chances came when they were able to find them. These intermediate passes allowed United to attack the back 4, which often positioned itself high on the wings, giving United the chance to attack the space between wing back and centre back.


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Wing back heading into the centre to cover


Apart from set-pieces and corners in particular, these types of cutting attacks gave Man Utd their best chances.


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• A match with no clear dominance.

• Neither team were able to break the other completely, despite good chances.


• Constant reevaluation of tactics to counterattack imbalances, sacrificing fluidity and scoring chances.


• A scarcity of space meant passing precision had to be very high.


• Two teams who usually link up well and attack fast held at bay by the other team’s defensive strategy.

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