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How Man Utd can get the better of Man City again

By Alex Keble 1 Jun 2023
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Alex Keble on how Erik ten Hag outwitted Pep Guardiola in January ahead of Saturday's FA Cup final

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Alex Keble looks at how Erik ten Hag got the better of Pep Guardiola in their last head-to-head and how that might impact the tactical battle in the FA Cup final on Saturday 3 June, 15:00 BST.

Man City v Man Utd

The first-ever FA Cup final between Manchester City and Manchester United is about more than just winning silverware.

Man Utd, desperate to prevent their rivals from emulating their 1999 treble, have never had so much motivation to beat Man City in the Guardiola era. They may never have felt more confident of their chances, either.

The Red Devils are one of just five clubs to have beaten Man City in all competitions this season, winning 2-1 at Old Trafford on 14 January. Like the other four, they rode their luck at times but emerged victorious with a defensive approach that focused on a deep line of engagement, narrowing the pitch, and springing forward on the counter-attack.

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Things have shifted since January, when Man City were drifting through a post-World Cup fog, but nevertheless there is reason to assume Saturday’s final could have a similar tactical pattern to their most recent head-to-head.

Guardiola will have new ideas up his sleeve, as will the ever-adaptable Ten Hag. But one thing is certain: both managers will be poring over Man Utd’s 2-1 win for clues.

How United stopped and countered City

Following Man City’s 6-3 win in the reverse fixture at the beginning of October, a match defined by a daring United press with predictably disastrous results, Ten Hag decided to abandon his usual principles for a considerably more conservative style of football for the return fixture.

They lined up in a narrow 4-2-3-1 formation, with Bruno Fernandes pushed out to the right wing and Fred parachuted in to add an extra defensive presence in the middle of the pitch.

The basic idea was to sit off Man City (without dropping too deep and inviting pressure) and block the route to goal with man-to-man marking in midfield, before attacking quickly with spring-loaded counters launched via Fernandes to runners Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial.

Man Utd formation
How Man Utd lined up against Man City in January 2023
Man City formation
How Man City lined up at Man Utd in January 2023

The thinking was relatively simple: Man City will cut open any team who try to play through them or, by pressing high, leave gaps in their own shape. But Guardiola’s side can become stuck when forced to break down a stubborn wall of bodies and, with such a high defensive line of their own, City can be vulnerable to fast breaks hit over the top.

The most interesting aspect of United’s plan was the man-to-man marking. Fred followed Kevin De Bruyne, Casemiro kept tight to Bernardo Silva, and Christian Eriksen tracked Rodri, while Raphael Varane was even given licence to push on to Erling Haaland when he dropped deep.

United's defensive shape
Man Utd adopted a man-to-man marking approach, with Fred, Casemiro and Christian Eriksen staying tight to their opposite midfielder

As a consequence, Man Utd recorded only 0.6 Expected Goals Against (xGA), their third-lowest total in any Premier League match in 2022/23, plus they held only 30 per cent possession and had 65 touches of the ball in the attacking third, on both counts their lowest numbers this season.

But, you could argue Guardiola’s tactical decisions were equally to blame for Ten Hag’s success.

He fielded just one defensive midfielder (Rodri) rather than a double-pivot and used both of his full-backs in a traditional manner, with neither player pushing into central midfield or staying deep to form a back three, as you can see in the above image.

That meant two things: first, Man City found it harder to pass through a central midfield in which Man Utd had a numerical advantage and chose to suffocate with their deep shape, and second, it left them vulnerable to the hosts’ counter-attacks down the wings – behind the full-backs and either side of a two-man central defence.

Fernandes starting on the right wing and Rashford on the left was a masterstroke. Since Man Utd rarely scurried into a deep 4-5-1, instead holding that midblock you see above, Ten Hag’s most important attackers were regularly in quite narrow and high areas of the pitch – ready to interact with one another on the break.

Man City did not have enough bodies back to deal with this, either in the defensive line (to track Rashford or Martial) or in the midfield line (to help Rodri stop Fernandes from pinging long balls over the top).

Fernandes Rashford
Bruno Fernandes played a number of long passes over the full-backs to Marcus Rashford, something Man City struggled to deal with

It was a pattern that repeated again and again. Man Utd had six "direct attacks" this match, their joint-most of the season, and were caught offside six times, their second-highest.

Fernandes passes
Bruno Fernandes's pass map v Man City (H). Man Utd had six "direct attacks" in this match, their joint-most of the season
Man Utd's long passes v Man City

Put together, then, Man City were forced into harmless sideways passes out to the only free men, the wide full-backs, and couldn’t get to grips with United’s simple long-ball breaks.

Guardiola switches it up, Ten Hag reacts

That first-half pattern ultimately set the tone and, in the second, both of Man Utd’s goals came from a similar form of counter-attack. But when considering how Saturday’s FA Cup final will go, it is important to look at how Guardiola adapted to the game – and how Ten Hag hit back again.

Noticing the problems as detailed above, Guardiola rejigged and plugged the gaps (temporarily, at least) in the second half, by instructing Joao Cancelo to come into central midfield, helping shut down Fernandes and give City greater control.

Cancelo 1st half touches
Joao Cancelo's first-half touch map, when he was deployed as a traditional left-back
Cancelo 2nd half touches
Joao Cancelo's second-half touch map, when he moved into central midfield

Who knows why Guardiola started with his full-backs in "normal" positions (perhaps he saw United’s full-backs as weak links City could target), but seeing it left his team exposed, he adapted accordingly.

Now that Man City had greater control of the territory, looking more like their usual selves, De Bruyne popped up on the right more often, which was too wide for Fred to follow in the man-to-man system.

Having escaped his marker, De Bruyne began to control the match – crossing from the right to set up Jack Grealish’s opener.

KDB cross
Fred (circled) looks on as Kevin De Bruyne crosses for Jack Grealish to score the opener

But Ten Hag reacted, bringing on the game-changer Alejandro Garnacho for Eriksen in a bold attacking substitution that meant Man Utd now had three quick attackers (Antony, Rashford, and Garnacho) for Man City to track.

Within 10 minutes, Man Utd were 2-1 up. The renewed counter-attacking threat, piling pressure on the still-advancing Man City, exposed those first-half gaps more than ever.

What’s most notable about both United goals was the absence of a third central defender, with Kyle Walker chasing back too late to track Fernandes - and missing from shot altogether for Garnacho’s winner.

Fernandes goal
Kyle Walker chases back too late and is unable to prevent Bruno Fernandes from scoring
Garnacho goal
Kyle Walker isn't in shot as Alejandro Garnacho sets up Marcus Rashford to score the winner

In the final tactical move of a complex strategic battle between the two managers, Ten Hag switched to a 5-2-3 in the closing moments to see the match out.

Watch: Man Utd 2-1 Man City highlights

Different Man City this time around

To an extent things will be different on Saturday, because Man City are in a very different place psychologically.

The sharpness of their passing and counter-pressing has increased markedly since those sticky January days, and that alone might be enough for Guardiola to presume he doesn’t need to worry about a repeat performance.

But he will have learnt tactical lessons, too, and the worrying news for Man Utd fans is that patching up the problems from the Old Trafford defeat only requires City to play their usual game. Or, to use a more loaded phrase, Man City should be much improved as long as their manager doesn’t overthink things.

It is likely Guardiola will start with his now-common 3-2-2-3 formation, the "W-M" that sees one full-back drop into a back three and the other join Rodri in central midfield.

Cancelo’s second-half positional move changed the dynamic of the last Manchester derby, if not the outcome, and so beginning with one full-back (or centre-back) stepping into midfield on Saturday ought to make United’s man-to-man marking in midfield less effective, give City greater control and fluency in their own build-up while shielding against Fernandes’s longer passing.

Meanwhile playing Walker on the right of the back three, as Guardiola generally has done over the last few months, could eradicate the kind of space that led to Man Utd’s two goals in January.

We might also see a slightly more conservative initial team selection. Rather than field Silva alongside De Bruyne, Guardiola may pick Ilkay Gundogan and use him in a double pivot with Rodri in certain areas of the pitch, further cementing City’s control.

MC likely formation
How Man City could line up in the FA Cup final against Man Utd on Saturday

Man Utd, however, should stick to a broadly similar approach. They will concede possession and territory in the hope of squeezing out space, especially if De Bruyne is unable to recover from his injury in time.

Nevertheless both sides are in a different place four months on from their last head-to-head. Consequently all we can guarantee is another complex contest defined as much by in-game changes and substitutions as the initial tactical battle.

And there is always the chance that one of these two managers does something entirely unexpected. In the pre-match press conference back in January, Guardiola raised an eyebrow when discussing Man Utd: “I have a few ideas, thoughts – ridiculous ones.”

After losing the last match to Ten Hag, Guardiola could still be ruminating on those “ridiculous” thoughts. 

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