Manchester City 0-2 Manchester United – Tactical Analysis

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Despite Manchester City’s incredible form in recent weeks, the feeling going into the weekend’s Manchester derby was that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could get a result yet again, as he had done in four out of his five previous meetings against Guardiola’s team. Led by their robust defensive structure and impeccable counter attacking play, that’s exactly what happened. Manchester United played with heart and fervidity and eventually succumbed Manchester City to their first loss since November 2020. Here is a tactical analysis of Manchester United’s 2-0 win over Manchester City in the derby on March 7th, 2021.


Both teams set up in their usual formations, with United sticking to their counter-attacking 4-2-3-1 and City in their possession-based 4-3-3. The two team sheets practically picked themselves due to the performances of all players involved, with Daniel James the only slight surprise name on the United team sheet, keeping out Mason Greenwood. James played an essential role in United’s counter attack and press, with his exceptional speed in both phases of the game. Martial was also a slightly more inevitable inclusion than might have been perceived, due to his ability in the same key areas, in addition to his important role in dropping deep during United’s build-up to help bypass City’s intense pressure. Edinson Cavani and Phil Foden were two of the bigger names to be left out from either side, with Foden entering the frame late on to work his magic and replace the tired Gabriel Jesus. In the end, United came out on top as City struggled to break the Red Devils down. One of the essential reasons for the defensive solidity was Solskjaer’s exceptional high press that stopped City from picking up any rhythm in the match.


Manchester United pressed in a diamond shape, accompanied by their 4-2-3-1 formation that would sometimes float into a 4-2-4 / 4-4-2 depending on how high they were pressing. The pressing strategy was aggressive and coordinated, completely stunting City’s ability to progress the ball forwards, particularly in central areas. United were excellent at maintaining their diamond shape regardless of the positioning of the ball, and often shuffled their opposition into switches of play to the other side, which were never effective at truly allowing City to escape the pressure.

The pressing strategy was aggressive, although more out of an intent to force City backwards or into bad passes, rather than to win the ball on a tackle. As soon as a Manchester City player lifted their foot to receive the ball and take their first touch, they found themselves under pressure from a United player within milliseconds. If one Red Devil was dragged outside of the diamond, the others would follow to remain compact and coordinated in their shape. In some moments this caused accidental interchange between the positioning of the front four and in these moments Manchester City had a better time escaping United’s press and playing through the thirds. Unfortunately for the Citizens, this was a rarity, and United stuck very well to their individual and collective tasks.

Their press was also exceptional in kick-starting counter-attacks, as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has practically become known for during his time at the helm of Old Trafford.

united’s counter attack

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One of the primary reasons why Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has fared so exceptionally well during nearly all of his Manchester derbies has come down to two things – defensive organization, and a reliance on quick attacking transitions. United’s opening goal came from a penalty shortly after winning the ball off a Manchester City throw-in, looking to spring into the box right away. Although they couldn’t find the back of the net off a counter attack for the rest of the match, nearly all of the Red Devils’ best attacks came from these phases of the game. With this approach, United proved themselves yet again to be the perfect team to thwart Manchester City’s style. For all their possession and attempts to play break lines, Manchester City could not find a way beyond United’s first half press and second half mid-block.

Upon winning the ball, United attacked at speed through quick dribbling and varied runs from players further ahead, expanding the width of the field the higher they progressed. The likes of James, Rashford and Martial were all effective in causing havoc for City’s defense, as only Ruben Dias and Rodrigo looked comfortable throughout the game. Beyond the pace and power of the front-men, Bruno Fernandes’ exceptional vision and ability to pick out a pass, plus Luke Shaw’s energy from left-fullback, made it very difficult for City to adequately cope with United’s transitions. Rodri was perhaps the most effective in quickly stopping these attacks from accumulating momentum, but Bruno would often overcome that initial pressure by switching play to the speedy Shaw. This allowed United to roam relatively freely down the left for large spells of the game, where they were able to create a few half-decent chances and eventually score their second goal of the game.

These two methodologies of keen defensive organization and counter attacking are exactly what has troubled Guardiola against many opposition sides in the past few years, particularly Wolves in the previous two seasons and West Ham United this season, despite the Hammers succumbing to a recent defeat this year. Both aforementioned teams play exceptionally on the break and for all someone like Zinchenko or Rodri do in transition, the best teams will find ways to exploit gaps in behind players like Joao Cancelo or in between the back four and Rodrigo. That’s exactly what Manchester United did, and it was one of the primary reasons why the Citizens could never get a proper foothold in the game.

city’s failure to break united down

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As illustrated by the previous two sections, Manchester City struggled to break Manchester United down. That part is evident. They relied far too heavily on attacks down the left with the likes of Sterling, Gundogan and Jesus. Meanwhile, most of their build-up relied on Zinchenko and Dias finding ways to break United’s press, with Joao Cancelo on the other side hardly involved until he was hauled off for Kyle Walker. Easily combatting City’s left-side reliance, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Scott McTominay never looked bothered and were two of United’s most resilient performers. The positioning of players in their press and the individual quality of the likes of Wan-Bissaka and McTominay to win the ball either meant that City had to switch to the right, or lose the ball and start again. United couldn’t ever keep hold of it for long enough to make too much of a difference, but this became very frustrating for the Sky Blues who couldn’t turn up the heat enough to allow their individual quality to shine through. Instead, it was United’s collective quality that won the day, and some of City’s best performers this season ended up having absolute stinkers. Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus in particular never got going, and were bullied around by the likes of Lindelof and Maguire. Cancelo and De Bruyne also couldn’t find any rhythm down the right, causing Riyad Mahrez to come much too deep for his pre-planned role, and the Belgian midfielder to drift to the left and leave the other two isolated for switches of play that never helped. In the end, United’s defensive resilience gave Solskjaer yet another win in a Manchester derby, with Guardiola left scratching his head.

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So there it is! A tactical analysis of Manchester United’s stellar 2-0 victory over Manchester City on March 7th, 2021. Be sure to check out more of our Match Analyses, Tactical Analyses, and articles pertaining to this Premier League season. Also be sure to follow @mastermindsite on Twitter and Instagram, and follow via email below to never miss an update. Thanks for reading and see you soon.

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