New Delhi: “When I was growing up, my father used to tell me about a ‘hit-and-run’ footballing style adopted by the Italian National Team, by virtue of which they ensured strong defense and powerful counter-attacks.” Embodied by burly-built attacking players, this strategy has been employed by a lot of managers throughout the world and very recently by the self-proclaimed ‘Special One’ Jose Mourinho.
The Manchester derby was surely going to be one of the most discussed events in the footballing sphere, and the home gaffer got his strategy all wrong for this important match. Frank Ribery, Thomas Mueller and several other players have accused Pep Guardiola of implementing way too many and intricate tactics on his team, which, for some of them, is meaningless or sometimes even, wasteful.
The continuous criticism of Pep Guardiola and his proving them wrong!
Arguably the most successful coach in recent history, though, keeps proving his naysayers wrong. Guardiola plays between the lines. He reads his opponents well, and knows what to expect of them. He always fields 11 outfield players to the opposition’s 10, the free goalkeeper role always benefiting him. The match proved a lot of things, strategically.
Mourinho is old school. Let me put my point before you jump to counter me. He prizes in heavily-built players, on both ends of the pitch as well as in the centre. He wants his players to take the aerial route on assists, and head the ball into the goal more often than not. Someone needs to tell him that the game has developed ahead. Way ahead than he actually reads and strategizes. His human management is spot on, now he needs to look on the footballing side.
Claudio Bravo made his debut in this heavily talked about encounter, made a gross mistake to hand United a goal, but his coach would still be happy with his performance. Bravo was probably the man United lacked, not just under the bar, but also as a passer behind the defense. Bravo kept the ball to himself, soaked a lot of pressure and controlled the tempo of the play well, taking a leaf or two off Sergio Busquets, his old club-teammate.
Mistakes of Jose Mourinho in the critical derby!
With injuries staring at Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Maraoune Fellaini from International duty, it was always a gamble throwing them into the starting line-up. And disappointingly enough, the gamble didn’t work. Mourinho played the eccentric Paul Pogba in the middle, giving him enough freedom to hover around the centre of the park, without any discipline. With Fellaini, you get a height and headers, but you don’t get speed, which is so important in converting defense to attacks or even, for soaking resistance.
Coming to exposing Fellaini, Kevin De Bruyne did a magnificent job to be-fool his compatriot throughout the match. Bruyne played exactly in between these two players, confusing them as to who would choose to mark him. With no clear clarity on the pitch in between the two United midfielders, they seemed to lag behind the genius feet of the Belgian and the pro-active reading of the Spanish coach.
Kevin, particularly, was impressive in how he turned and linked up play. He had freedom from his coach. He could attack the central defenders; he could also keep himself in the middle of the pitch and dictate proceedings. He placed himself at the centre of both these positions, something outrageous in terms of football positions but very effective in terms of breaking opposition defenses.
Guardiola talks a lot about the small details, about 3-4 metres here or there on the pitch, and this match showed why he’s been successful with his game plans. He read the match in his mind way earlier than Mourinho did. Guardiola knew that changes might happen, but the midfield pair would be the same, and thus, his ward Kevin De Bruyne was taught exactly how to crack it open. Playing a lone striker against a two-man defensive pair can be a hard calling, but not when you have a master tactician like Guardiola to back you.
The first goal was an exact sign to this. With persistent pressure and the profile of the match getting to the young United players, Guardiola knew that the maverick Eric Bailly would do his part of mistakes, which the Ivory Coast defender did. He didn’t go for a header against Kelechi Iheanacho, who headed in the way of Kevin De Bruyne, who was in between the two central defenders and was running at full speed at them. A body feint was enough to put De Gea wrong-footed, and City were 1-0 up, thanks to the mastery of Guardiola’s thinking.
Tactical view-points and where United lost the game
Diagonal dribbling is a relatively new term in football tactical analysis, but one look at David Silva’s game-play on Saturday and you get to understand it pretty well. Silva didn’t dribble past players; he just didn’t get in their way. He dribbled diagonally, crossed them and created spaces quite easily. Silva could, almost throughout the match, easily find either a certain Nolito on the left wing or Kevin De Bruyne in the centre of the park, which kept the attacking proceedings going.
United were certainly troubled by this, but they were obnoxious enough to ignore the problem. A manager is known by his team, and this is what it looked like on the pitch. City players were disciplined, concentrated and tactically aware while United players were ignorant of mistakes, taking too much pride into the dirty work and even, didn’t want to bomb the midfield, where they actually lost the game.
The second half saw a more resurgent United side, with Marcus Rashford and Ander Herrera coming into the team on the expense of the wasteful Jesse Lingard and the flattered-to-deceive Henrikh Mkhitaryan. You get players who play the ball with their foot, and you implement a tactic which is sound aerially, doesn’t that sound awkward? Yes it does, and it looked similar on the field. With a prodigy in imperious form in Marcus Rashford, Mourinho should have made him his Eden Hazard for the day. Painfully, he didn’t.
Rashford has been having immediate impacts whenever he touches the ball, and here, it was no different. The 18-year-old even scored a goal, which was ruled out due to offside, albeit after a touch from Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who had a poor match in contrast to his lofty standards, barring the one open-goal he scored. United played for creating chances, because that’s all they could with aerial deliveries.
The air of arrogancy won’t help United in the long run
Football is meant to be played on the ground, and City played it well there. You can occasionally use the air, but that shouldn’t be your first choice. Sadly, that was the case for the last 15 minutes for this Mourinho-led Manchester United side. Sir Alex Ferguson’s parent-like denial showed exactly how he feels about this game-play. City, at every set-piece, kept a high back-line, negating the aerial threat to the hilt. It is sad to see a team so capable of playing free-flowing football being forced to adapt to such rigid and ineffective tactics.
Coming to Manchester City, they look to be a well-drilled side. Every player seems to know their roles and the respect for the coach is majestic. They listen to the inputs and apply them well on the field. Guardiola is slowly, yet again, building a side capable of winning, and winning creatively. City played a lot of passes in its own half, even involving the goalkeeper on some occasions, which exactly shows how well they know their plans and have more than one option in their minds.
Playing the ball to the goalkeeper in the second half was targeted to open up spaces in a pressing Manchester United side, which exactly happened. Counter attacks flowed easily, while City soaked the pressure. Every substitution had a meaning, a fair importance to the game. While City’s game-play was not predictable at the beginning and was applaudable by the end, it was United who were easily guessable throughout.
By the 75th minute of the match, United had turned into the Italian side which is used to ‘hit-and-run’. Burly-built Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Fellaini and Paul Pogba were sent into the opposition box and Daley Blind was deputized to kick the ball into the air from the back and Rooney, from the wings. None paid dividends; none would either, against disciplined sides like Guardiola’s.
It amuses me why Mourinho didn’t play the ball-at-the-feet game. He never believed in his midfield from the word go. Juan Mata was rested in the International break; Martial came off from a goal-scoring performance, yet he didn’t want his regular wingers. Guardiola’s tactics to put his side-backs into the midfield caught Mourinho off-guard, who wanted to exploit the wings. Predictably, Guardiola had changed his team’s attitude on the wings. They proved domination all over the park, on the edge and in the centre. Mkhitaryan was able to sense that early, and his attempts in the centre of the park were equally useless.
The line up showed he wanted his wingers to have a higher importance than they usually do, reducing the importance or the trust from his midfield. The world’s costliest player was nowhere to be found and he wasn’t the only United player suffering. Almost everyone else did. United looked beaten, completely. Jose Mourinho can very well win against sides who bask in strength on the pitch, he looks be-dazzled at tactically stronger matches.
If there’s one man who can stop the juggernaut of Kevin De Bruyne in this EPL, it’s Antonio Conte. At his disposal, he has the league’s two best defensive midfielders in Nemanja Matic and N’Golo Kante. It would be interesting to see how Pep uses his new Iniesta-isque player in the match against last year’s champions.
Jose Mourinho could be a man on mission, but Guardiola is ahead in the race for sure. The second half looked better for United, but that kind of attacking domination ensures risk against counter-attacking teams. It was a desperate plan, a man who looked at defeat in his ways.
Fairly speaking, United was defeated, hands down. It would be nice to see United and Mourinho back to their ‘swag’ in the next match, but the Portuguese coach needs to change his tactics — the sooner, the better he does. It would be really appreciated if ‘The Special One’ actually takes a leaf or two out of the book of his best nemesis
— Pep Guardiola.