With the English season turning 15 games old, we have upon us the first Manchester Derby of the season, taking place at the fortress, City of Manchester Stadium, in a match that could have some serious implications on one of the two involved clubs’ title aspirations this term.
Since their disappointing loss to Everton almost 24 months ago, Roberto Mancini’s troops have embarked upon an impressive home form, going 37 games unbeaten at the Etihad, including the one-nil win over United last April, a result eventually proved to be hugely critical during the cliff-hanging title run-in.
Moreover, having remained undefeated throughout the 15 matchweeks this season, the Citizens without doubt enter this crunch tie as the prime favourites.
Hence, in the build-up to the England’s version of the ‘El Clasico’, we have a look at how Manchester City will both, offensively, as well as defensively, target United’s flanks, the avenues of the pitch that are traditionally considered as Red Devils’ forte.
During the Everton tie, an impressive trait that Manchester City showcased was that after their horrendous defensive showings at the start of the season, the Sky Blues are now contributing at the back end of the pitch as a cohesive unit, particularly at the wings.
Samir Nasri and David Silva often tracked back to help out the likes of Pablo Zabaleta and Maicon in a bid to counter Everton’s strong wing-play.
In the above image, Nasri and Silva were in a strong position to man-mark Baines and Hibbert respectively. This prevented the Toffees from gaining a 2 vs. 1 advantage while attacking City, particularly on the right wing that was occupied by the now occasionally porous Maicon. Since his deadline-day move from San Siro, the Brazilian has been slightly susceptible when it comes to defending and Mancini ensured that the once-Real Madrid transfer target was not overrun by the highly-effective Baines-Pienaar partnership through some strict defensive orders given to Silva and Nasri.
With Shinji Kagawa and Anderson both injured, United are expected to deploy their traditional and direct 4-4-2 formation with the likelihood of Young and Rooney taking the flanks, although one cannot bet against Welbeck making a shock return to the starting eleven on the right wing.
Hence, due to City’s compact defensive play, although the full-backs will continuously overlap their offensive counterparts, the Red Devils won’t be able to gain the extra man advantage while attacking down the wings, something they could easily do against Chelsea when the two teams met a few weeks ago.
This could hamper United’s primary attacking option and thus leave Alex Ferguson in a unique dilemma.
Either the 70-year-old Scot could opt for the ‘diamond midfield’ formation against City. The ‘diamond’ primarily supports a possession game and is suitable when the flanks fail to generate the required creativity in the final third. Moreover, with City themselves generally opting to play from the centre of the park due to Mancini’s unwillingness to efficiently utilize his wingers, the ‘diamond’ could help the Red Devils prevent the Citizens from exploiting the lack of pace in the 19-times champions’ midfield.
The other option Ferguson has, is to opt for the 4-4-2 formation, but probably bring on Javier Hernandez early on in the second half. The Mexican’s ability to get behind the tired defensive wall could unsettle City’s characteristically reliable and structured backline, consequently allowing his teammates with the space and opportunity to break down the Citizen’s back four.
As aforementioned, Manchester City have been often found guilty of playing ‘too narrow’ under Roberto Mancini and against Everton, it was quite evident that the lack of true wingers could adversely crumble down the club’s attack.
Due to the scarcity of archetypal-style wingers in the team, the onus generally falls on the full-backs to provide width to City’s play and agitate the oppositions’ defensive set-up.
In the following image, one could see Maicon and Zabelata marking their trademark runs down their respective flanks at the same time in order to stretch the Everton defense.
Both try to attract the attention of their counterpart wingmen so as to create space for the central playmakers, namely Silva and Nasri. Everton, however, didn’t fall for this trap, thus restricting City’s dominance in the game. Instead of departing to take down the wing-backs, the likes of Baines, Pienaar, Hibert and Naismith remained compact in the centre of the field to ensure that the drifting duo of Nasri and Silva weren’t given the gaps to carry out their crafty plays.
As Gary Neville states in this video, United easily succumbed to this tactic during their last season 1-6 hauling at the hands of their ‘Noisy Neighbours’ last season and hence it won’t come as a surprise if the English champions again go for the same outlook this time around.
With the midfielders usually reluctant to help out their colleagues behind them and with both Patrice Evra and Rafael possessing far from desirable positioning sense or ability to time their forward runs, City’s marauding full-backs could thoroughly exploit United’s flanks.
Therefore, ironically, although the wings are supposed to be Manchester United’s first-look avenue for burning down the other teams, come Sunday, and City could perhaps use these same ‘wings’ to claim Manchester supremacy.