Manuel Pellegrini’s team will know that they delivered a deliberate blow to the 2012/13 champions and showed them to be weak; David Moyes’ men will know that they were humiliated and beaten by a much more clinical, and tactically aware, team.
United will find some saving solace in the notion that they played this one without Robin van Persie, with his exclusion from the squad no doubt having an effect. His absence gave City further belief that they could withstand whatever attack United threw at them, and the Sky Blues knew that with Wayne Rooney likely to play a more advanced role, they would be able to win the battle of central midfield.
Had the Dutch international been on the field, however, that story would have been different—to what extent, though, is something we’ll never know for sure.
However, the story of the day was not about Van Persie, or even about United in many respects. This was about Manchester City and their re-emergence, if you like, as a genuine Premier League contender this year.
They dispelled any doubts that might have been starting to develop over the past fortnight about their credentials this season and showed that their squad is far superior—both in terms of skill level and tactical sense—than that of the Red Devils.
Let’s break down the film and see just what we learned from City’s 4-1 victory.
United Given a Lesson on How to Play the Double-Pivot
With the 4-2-3-1 formation (and various uses of it) having gained such notoriety over the past few seasons, the notion of a “double-pivot” is becoming an increasingly important concept for both teams and fans to understand.
Any team that tries to employ the 4-2-3-1, the 4-4-1-1 or even the 4-4-2 formation seeks to utilize the double-pivot, and while both Manchester clubs attempted to do the same on Sunday, only one managed to find any real success.
In a nutshell, the concept of a double-pivot is how the two defensive midfielders (contrary to their positional name) contribute to the attack of a team.
Instead of sitting in front of the defensive line and acting as a shield, defensive midfielders are being asked now to play in a more box-to-box role.
They push up the pitch to find space vacated by the four attackers ahead of them, and for the most part, it’s quite successful.
Their late movement means that they are often unnoticed by opposing defenses and can create some serious attacking potency as a result. Both Bastian Schweinsteiger at Bayern Munich and Ilkay Gundogan at Borussia Dortmund are good examples.
A rotating double-pivot is simply two of those players together.
It’s Schweinsteiger with Sami Khedira; Gundogan with Sven Bender.
When one is marked by the central midfielders of another team, the other attacks. When one is left sitting in front of the defensive line, the other pushes forward, but that doesn’t necessarily it has to be the same player all the time.
The two pivots rotate their roles, and the key is knowing when to attack and when to sit back. That’s the double-pivot in a nutshell.
Just watch Yaya Toure (or ask Sam Tighe!).
Fellaini was thoroughly impressive against Bayer Leverkusen in this role and seemed destined to do the same again here but was quickly caught on the back foot. He was never able to get forward enough and contribute to the attack in the way that he would have at Everton (or even in the Champions League during the week). He was stuck in more of a defensive shield role in front of the United defensive line, and that had some serious—albeit not instant—ramifications for the Red Devils.
With Fellaini not really asserting any real influence in central midfield, Wayne Rooney was forced to try to play both the No. 9 and No. 10 roles concurrently.
City stalwart Vincent Kompany was able to essentially mark him out of the game whenever he pushed too far forward, and that meant that both Toure and Fernandinho were able to do whatever they needed in central midfield. They weren’t forced to defend Rooney and weren’t forced to deal with the threat of Fellaini—giving them all the time and space in the world needed to thrive.
This “schooling” in the use of double-pivot will stand as an important lesson to United, and one that will benefit them in the long run.
What United don’t need is another midfielder; what they need is to rethink the way that their two central midfielders are playing.
Even when pressed with opposition, they must be prepared to push forward and make their opponents’ double-pivot work hard. If not, they will simply find themselves overrun in defense and unable to effectively break when they do end up with possession in their own half. Instead of being dynamic and explosive from the back, they will become bland and predictable—which is exactly what happened.
City’s Counterattacks Show Up United’s (Non)Enthusiasm in Defense
Coming into this fixture, many (including myself) expected Manchester City to dominate possession, and United to try to hurt them on the counterattack.
That was the way that it happened last time these teams met at the Etihad, but it certainly wasn’t how things transpired this weekend. It was United who dominated possession (58 percent to City’s 42 percent), and it was even United who managed more shots on goal for the match (chalking up 12 shots on goal to the Citizens’ 11).
How, then, did City manage to get four goals in front?
It was counterattacking football at its best.
The very means that scored United their opening two goals against City last year, but this time, it was the home side showing how it was done to perfection.
City—thanks to their double-pivot—were able to quickly break any time they got the ball in their half or United’s and didn’t mess about in the attacking third.
They would look to shift it wide to either Jesus Navas or Samir Nasri, or play it forward to Sergio Aguero, who had a marvellous game in the No. 10 role.
The home team were clinical and swift in their directness, and it caused United plenty of grief because they were unwilling to track back and defend as fast as their opponents were willing to attack. That might sound simplistic, but it’s true.
United didn’t get back in defense and simply gave City too much space on all four of their goals.
Yes, there was some fantastic counterattacking work (which we’ll see) but the key was the Red Devils’ inability to shut down City moving forward. Even with Fellaini playing as a lumbersome defensive screen for most of the game (most likely to stop any counterattack), the Citizens were still able to exploit United’s midfield pairing and then catch out their wide men as well.
Time and time again.
16’—GOAL: Sergio Aguero (Manchester City lead 1-0)
Manchester United’s defense and midfield might have come under plenty of fire throughout this game (and for good reason), but it’s important to note that they did also manage to put themselves in plenty of good positions.
As we can see from the image above, which was the start of Sergio Aguero’s opening goal, United have good shape at the back with their back four and have Fellaini and Carrick in good spots in central midfield also. Even Antonio Valencia—the man who’ll come under fire a lot in this piece—is in a relatively good position.
The problem comes in the next image.
Nasri has been held up by Chris Smalling, and Aleksandar Kolarov will now provide the overlapping option down the left wing—something that Valencia should have no problems with given that he’s tracked him back for 40-50 yards. The same goes for Fellaini and Aguero, given that the Belgian has been watching the striker for most of Nasri’s run. As we’ll see, both United players are found wanting, though.
Valencia has simply stopped running, and Kolarov (who he should have picked up) is now free to cross. Smalling switches from Nasri at the right time, but he’s forced to switch so late courtesy of Valencia’s non-effort that the left-back is able to get a cross in, and the options are plentiful for City.
He’s got either Alvaro Negredo or Aguero to choose from, with Fellaini in an absolutely terrible position—neither defending in the back line or sitting on top of the box.
He's in no-man's land.
It’s worth noting here, as the image shows, that all United defenders have done a poor job of marking here. They simply aren’t tight enough to their man, and it proved the difference in the end, with Aguero peeling off Vidic and Evra for a sensational finish.
City counterattacked superbly, but United should have had it covered.
They were in a great position to deal with the goal early but didn’t mark up and were left to rue the consequences.
45’—GOAL: Yaya Toure (Manchester City lead 2-0)
The pictures do the talking here. Fellaini has Toure marked. He has him, he has him. The ball’s in the air, and then, suddenly, he doesn’t have him anymore.
The big Belgian might be an all-conquering force in the air given his supreme height advantage, but when he leaves his man to try and make a clearance (and then fails), that’s a huge blow for the Red Devils. The context of this goal could not have been worse either for United.
They weren’t playing all that well, but they were slowly starting to get themselves into the game and provide some attacking impetus down the right flank. And then—almost inexplicably—they switched off in the final attacking play before half-time.
Now, instead of heading into the half-time break with a very manageable one-goal deficit, they were down by two goals and up against a team full of running once more. Given that City would score two more goals in the five minutes straight after half-time, that second goal was incredibly important for momentum in this match.
47’—GOAL: Sergio Aguero (Manchester City lead 3-0)
One of the surprising comments made coming into this one was the belief that wing play would not be as important this season for Manchester City as before.
The addition of Fernandinho (along with Negredo and Stevan Jovetic) this summer would seemingly confirm that to be true somewhat, but what that statement doesn’t recognise is just how important Jesus Navas is to Pellegrini.
The former Sevilla winger hasn’t broken out at the Etihad by any means, but he has been an important attacking weapon, and against a suspect winger in Ashley Young, he was certainly capable of having a big day out.
City would show just how important their wing play was in the five minutes immediately after half-time. They put on two goals (one down either flank), and the first started with a move by Nasri—another player with a new lease of life under the former Malaga manager.
Setting it up, Nasri has cut in from the flank and is being marked pretty well by Valencia. Smalling is peeling off to cover the wide-running Kolarov (desperate to ensure that he doesn’t get beaten like he was for the last goal), but United seemingly have the options covered.
Ferdinand and Carrick are tracking back; Vidic has Negredo covered goal-side and Navas is too far away (and too tightly marked) for Nasri to switch the play. His only option is to play the ball through the space for Negredo to run on to.
Vidic follows, as you'd expect, and the options are seemingly few for Negredo. Yes, he’s got the ball in the box, but the options are cut off for City.
Fellaini has Aguero, and Ferdinand has the space in front of him; there appears to be nothing that the striker can do to hurt the Red Devils, but some sloppy marking and communications proves the opposite to be the case.
Fellaini—for some reason—stops running. Despite being brought into the team as a tenacious tackler and one to shield the defensive back four in this game,
Fellaini doesn’t keep running himself back into the defensive line, and Aguero takes full advantage. He finds the space between Ferdinand and Evra and grabs his second goal of the game. At the time of the goal, Manchester United had seven players plus David de Gea inside the box. Manchester City had three.
Yet they still managed to grab themselves their third goal of the game.
The issue for United here isn’t about City being a brilliant attacking side, or the United squad not being good enough to match it. The Citizens attacked well, but for the most part, United were in control in this raid and should have dealt with the cross. Fellaini (and perhaps Carrick also) should have been deep enough to ensure that they weren’t going to be caught out in defense, and this brings us back to the knowledge and understanding that needs to exist in a double-pivot.
Playing in a double-pivot doesn’t mean that you can’t attack. Toure proves that to be the case, as does Schweinsteiger and Gundogan every time they play.
However, what it does mean is that when one arm of the double-pivot pushes up behind the central midfielder, the other arm must then cover the centre.
Both can’t attack, just like both can’t defend, and that was the issue here.
Both Fellaini and Carrick were caught too high up the field, yet neither was able to pick up the entry runner in Aguero when they did make it back.
Twice they didn’t communicate, and that’s what hurt United in this third goal.
50’—GOAL: Samir Nasri (Manchester City lead 4-0)
Different side of the field, same problem for United.
The breakout by Manchester City is very good through Navas (whose pace was never going to be caught by a lumbering midfielder like Fellaini), but for the most part, United defend this pretty well.
Negredo is picked up in the middle, Navas is tracked well to the by-line and the central defenders manage to hold a very good line throughout the attack as well—which, as we can see in the below image, is much more difficult to do than it appears.
However, Valencia again is caught out by the pace of Manchester City. At the time where Navas breaks past Fellaini in his own half, Valencia has more than enough time to get on his bike and track back to his box. We’ve seen going forward that he’s quicker than Nasri and most wingers in the Premier League, but he simply doesn’t see the urgency required here and allows Nasri to get too far ahead.
By the time the cross comes in from Navas, Nasri is all by himself for the simplest of finishes. Vidic and De Gea blow up after this goal, and rightly so.
They had the numbers back there (just like they did the second goal), but they didn’t manage their numbers well. Nasri (as well as Aguero) are simply afforded too much space in and around the penalty box, which you just can’t do against world-class attackers. Not unless you want four goals scored against you.
Bringing it All Together
I haven’t discussed United’s attack (or City’s attack) a great deal here and I think that’s because neither were really the biggest talking point to come out of this one. Let me clarify that: City’s attack was definitely the talking point and the deciding factor in the game, but they were aided and sustained by a woeful United defense.
The Red Devils allowed them too much space in the middle and didn't track back with any urgency—two aspects that would have dramatically affected this one.
In terms of how United’s attack performed, it’s simply too hard to read too much here without Van Persie, who is the heart and soul of the team's attack.
His absence meant Rooney was forced to play too many roles at once, which allowed Kompany to drag him out of the game in attack. As mentioned before, that gave Fernandinho and Toure full control in the middle, and that double-pivot is simply too talented to give that much space to.
Moyes’ biggest concern here will not be the scoreline but rather how simply it came about.
City scored three goals in a five-minute period, and if United’s defense had been switched on and fulfilled their most basic of duties (marking their opponents), could very well have not conceded either goal. The manager will certainly be frustrated watching back against Fellaini and Valencia in particular, and both players must do better if United are successfully going to play the counterattacking and high-pressing game throughout the Premier League this season.
United’s central midfield still remains a hot point for discussion, with the prospect of a successful double-pivot no doubt the biggest talking point of them all.
Fellaini is neither a prolific ball-winner nor a world-class dribbler, and United must recognise that by not leaving him too isolated in attack.
Conversely, they also cannot allow the pace of either midfielder to be put in a one-on-one situation against opposing wingers—they are never going to win that battle.
Fellaini was a prolific attacker last year at Everton and even Carrick has proved himself to be a good attacker when needed (a certain 7-1 victory against AS Roma springs to mind). However, both need to recognise that they cannot fill this role at the same time. They both cannot solely attack together, and they both cannot solely defend together.
The rotating double-pivot is exactly that—a rotation—and they must find the balance quickly if United are going to challenge for the Premier League title this season.
An argument can be made that this will take time, and that’s important to remember. However, at the same time, we must also recognise that Toure and Fernandinho have had essentially just as long playing together in the double-pivot, and the results could not be more different.
That much was clear watching Manchester City run riot on what was a very Super Sunday indeed.
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