BACK at the start of October, Manchester City claimed bragging rights in the Manchester derby by thrashing their bitter rivals Manchester United 6-3.

A pair of hat-tricks from Erling Haaland and Phil Foden extended City’s lead over Erik ten Hag’s side to eight points in the Premier League table.

Erik ten Hag comes up against Pep Guardiola on Saturday

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Erik ten Hag comes up against Pep Guardiola on Saturday
Marcus Rashford leads the goalscoring for Man Utd
Marcus Rashford leads the goalscoring for Man Utd
Erling Haaland has been sensational for Man City this season
Erling Haaland has been sensational for Man City this season

The Red Devils stayed sixth, way off their once-noisy, now extremely loud neighbours, while Pep Guardiola’s men moved within a point of Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal.

It was a humiliating defeat for United and was only the third time in history that the club conceded six goals in a Premier League game, leading to intense criticism for new manager ten Hag and his players.

The team still had frailties, maintaining their shadows from the previous campaign, a horrific habit of crumbling when the going got tough.

However, fast forward to January 2023, with the reverse fixture kicking off this weekend, a victory for Manchester United will put the English giants just a point off their Mancunian adversaries.

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The Reds are in a much healthier position, having won ten of their last eleven games in all competitions.

This is a different Man United to the one that City picked apart in October and the derby will likely be a lot closer this time around.

Man City’s defensive weakness

Manchester City’s defensive record has actually regressed from last season.

In 38 games during the 2021/22 campaign, City were conceding 0.69 goals per game compared to 0.94 this season.

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Furthermore, the Citizens have already allowed 16 goals against them in 17 matches which is already just 10 fewer than last season. 

In this campaign, Pep’s team are on course to concede a projected 36 goals in the league which would be the highest number of goals against since his first season managing in English football.

Over the years, City have always boasted one of the best defensive records in European football but have been far from a conservative side.

Guardiola’s teams take the approach that the best form of defence is attack. If the opposition don’t have the ball, then they can’t hurt you.

This mantra has been successful once again this season as the champions currently boast the third-best defensive record in the division despite systematic flaws in the team.

The two-time Champions League winning coach sets his side up to attack in a way that City can counterpress effectively out of possession to regain the ball as quickly as possible.

In this example, Rico Lewis has been tasked with coming inside next to Rodri while Nathan Ake becomes a third centre-back.

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In this example, Rico Lewis has been tasked with coming inside next to Rodri while Nathan Ake becomes a third centre-back.
Rodri is a dominant force in midfield
Rodri is a dominant force in midfield

To do this, the manager instructs one of his fullbacks to invert centrally and play alongside Rodri who operates as the No6.

Meanwhile, the other fullback tucks inside along side the two centre-backs, creating a back three.

All of a sudden, the team’s shape switches from the conventional 4-3-3 to a 3-2-5.

Guardiola uses inverted fullbacks as, when possession is turned over to the opposition, it makes sense to have more defence-minded players in the middle of the park who can cut out counterattacks.

Essentially, when City lose the ball, there are four defenders and a defensive midfielder back behind the ball already to congest the centre of the pitch and stifle the opponent on the break.

Nevertheless, this does cause one major issue when defending for City.

As both fullbacks are in central positions and the wingers are high and wide, there is a lot of space on the flanks which is largely exposed.

Everton's Demarai Gray picks up the ball near the halfway line runs down the open left channel before cutting inside and scoring, exploiting the space left on City's flanks.

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Everton’s Demarai Gray picks up the ball near the halfway line runs down the open left channel before cutting inside and scoring, exploiting the space left on City’s flanks.

With smooth transitions, opponents can be smart and play into these spaces to take advantage of the major weakness in City’s defensive structure.

Everton managed to scrape a draw recently at Etihad Stadium by exploiting this area of the pitch when counterattacking.

Can Man United handle City’s intensity?

One of the most striking characteristics of City’s demolition of Chelsea in the third round of the FA Cup at the weekend was just how intense the Premier League champions were when pressing high up the pitch.

Graham Potter’s struggling Blues could hardly play out of their own half and were pressed relentlessly by City as Guardiola’s side were hungry to win the ball back.

City committed quite a lot of bodies forward during the press, with Kyle Walker even leaving his position on the right side of the defence to push up to the final third to press Chelsea’s left-back Lewis Hall.

City would force Chelsea to play to the left side of the pitch quite often and would adopt a man-marking approach, trying to box the Blues into the corner where they could trap them and regain possession.

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City would force Chelsea to play to the left side of the pitch quite often and would adopt a man-marking approach, trying to box the Blues into the corner where they could trap them and regain possession.

In this FA Cup humbling, Chelsea lost the ball 26 times in their own third of the pitch as City completed stifled the London team’s ability to progress from deep.

The topics of discussion when talking about a team coached by Pep Guardiola are always centred around principles in possession and his attacking philosophy overall.

Of course, City are scintillating to watch, but the players are not slackers.

You don’t win back-to-back titles twice in four years without working hard during the defensive phases.

Manchester City are incredibly well-drilled off the ball. In fact, no side have forced more turnovers of possession in the final third than Guardiola’s men this season.

Kevin de Bruyne favoured the right side against Chelsea in City's recent Premier League win
Kevin de Bruyne favoured the right side against Chelsea in City’s recent Premier League win

On the other hand, Manchester United have improved massively in their build-up play which was an area where the side desperately struggled at the beginning of the campaign.

Cast your mind back to the comedy of errors made in the 4-0 defeat against Brentford back in August and compare the team’s build-up play to the present day.

It is clear that Erik ten Hag has been drilling his side to pass out from the back cleanly over the past few months to a point where the Red Devils are confident doing so.

Even David de Gea has started to become more involved in the team’s play. The centre-backs split wider, the fullbacks push slightly higher and Casemiro roams around the edge of the area, looking to create an angle to receive from the defenders.

In-possession, Man United’s setup is a 4-3-3 with one pivot player as opposed to a double-pivot operating behind the opponent’s forward line when pressing.

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In-possession, Man United’s setup is a 4-3-3 with one pivot player as opposed to a double-pivot operating behind the opponent’s forward line when pressing.

United have scored some fabulous team goals in recent weeks, with a few coming all the way from the goalkeeper.

The side’s overall build-up play has significantly improved.

However, City are a different animal. Arguably the best pressing side in the Premier League right now, the champions will be really intense out of possession, and it will be interesting to see whether or not the hosts can cope with this relentless pressure.

Man United will either excel or crumble under the high pressing of City. Failure to bypass their rival’s press could be one of the deciding factors in this derby clash.

A change in midfield?

To the elation of Manchester United fans, the days of Scott McTominay and Fred pairing together in the middle of the park in a league game seem long gone.

The duo started in midfield on Tuesday as the Reds breezed past Charlton in the Carabao Cup, but the team’s play suffered overall.

With the game into its final thirty minutes, ten Hag brought Casemiro and Christian Eriksen on from the bench to add more quality in that department which is exactly what they did.

With both summer signings on the pitch, as well as the in-form Marcus Rashford, United rioted late on, bagging two more goals to see off a valiant Charlton and progress to the semi-finals of the competition.

In fact, the 6-3 loss in the derby in October forced ten Hag to adopt a new midfield trio.

Casemiro had yet to start in the Premier League by that point, but the Dutch coach’s hand was forced and so the Brazilian was thrown in for the next match against Everton at Goodison Park where he picked up the Man of the Match award.

From there on, the three-man midfield has consistently comprised of Casemiro, Eriksen and Bruno Fernandes.

Casemiro runs the show for Man Utd
Casemiro runs the show for Man Utd

However, with City coming to town this weekend, perhaps a change is on the horizon.

Eriksen has been a wonderful signing for 20-time league champions, coming in on a free transfer in the summer.

However, the Dane is not the strongest when playing in a team that is sitting deep for large periods of time.

With City expected to dominate the ball at Old Trafford, ten Hag will have to tweak his typical approach and so bringing a more defensive-minded player into the fold may be the best option.

The Sky Blues like to use the halfspaces quite a lot to create chances in the box.

The advanced central midfielders often get beyond the winger, attacking the channel between the opposition’s fullbacks and centre-backs before playing cut-back crosses into the penalty area.

As Diogo Dalot was preoccupied with Grealish, Silva made a run between the fullback and central defender to receive at the edge of the area. The Portuguese playmaker played an excellent ball to Haaland at the back-post which almost led to an opening goal by City.

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As Diogo Dalot was preoccupied with Grealish, Silva made a run between the fullback and central defender to receive at the edge of the area. The Portuguese playmaker played an excellent ball to Haaland at the back-post which almost led to an opening goal by City.

Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva are superb in these positions, hence why they register so many assists year-on-year.

Ten Hag will need to think up a plan to combat these runs. Given that the United boss prefers to deploy a 4-2-3-1, which becomes a 4-4-2 out of possession, the best option would be to instruct the double-pivot to plug these gaps by tracking the runners into the channels.

This is something that Man United didn’t do well enough in the reverse fixture at the Etihad, largely due to having Eriksen in the midfield.

Eriksen is a wonderful player on the ball, but his weaknesses certainly show out of possession. Fred or McTominay may be a much better shout alongside Casemiro in the double-pivot.

Fred has seen the space open up between his left-back and nearest centre-back and so steps in to track the Burnley attacker’s run in order to prevent them from receiving the ball in the box.

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Fred has seen the space open up between his left-back and nearest centre-back and so steps in to track the Burnley attacker’s run in order to prevent them from receiving the ball in the box.

The pair read the game really well and are solid at plugging gaps in the backline when they open up, which will be vital on Saturday to defend against the runs from deep of City’s advanced central midfielders.

While ten Hag will lose the passing range of Eriksen, it may be important to have a little more defensive nous alongside Casemiro given that the Red Devils will be defending for large parts of the match.

What does this all mean?

It’s still early in the season. Both teams can afford to lose but defeat could hamper the two sides in their own respective quests for top four and Premier League glory.

For the first time since losing to Man City in October, United are expected to be the team that has far lass possession than their opponents and so it will be interesting to see how the hosts adapt to a change in style.

We can expect a much closer battle this time around and a win for Manchester United will prove that ten Hag’s men truly are a force to be reckoned with this season.

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Meanwhile, the rest of the contenders for the Champions League spots will be eagerly watching in the hope that City can end United’s rich vein of form.

Pick up your copy of the January digital Total Football Analysis magazine here



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