This is what tonight's fight is for...
Hopefully by now, you're well prepared for the Manchester derby and it would please the writers at this site greatly if the content we've provided in the past week played a small part in that. Manchester United is a passion of ours and it is a great privilege to have an audience for our thoughts and a home for discussion in regards to this great football club. Tonight is obviously a massive night and the clear desire is that our boys will be brave and brilliant in battle at the Etihad. Ahead of this mighty clash, managers Sir Alex Ferguson and Roberto Mancini have been plotting their tactics and for the latter, only one outcome out of the possible three is suitable -- victory. The Italian has weapons at his disposal that can pierce United's defenses and a review of this season's two other derbies -- the reverse fixture at Old Trafford and the FA Cup tie at the Etihad -- provides a quick reminder of that. Quite simply though, if I could briefly have the ear of Fergie over a glass of red, I would suggest to the legendary manager that he use City's ambition against them. United may be able to earn their own desired results if they simply absorb City's advances, funnel their narrow and relatively predictable attack, and then look cleave them open by hitting their vulnerable defenses on the break with pace and precision. I'll provide some more specifics after the diagram below and after the jump...
I've written about this quite a bit lately but it's a fundamental point that needs to be hammered into our brains in regards to City if one desires to understand their approach-- their attackers aim to buzz around in the space between the lines, use intelligent movement to drag defenders out of position or to create overloads, and then they look to carve open the opposition with an incisive through ball. Their wide players will come inside looking to quickly combine while a secondary striker -- Carlos Tevez in recent weeks -- will drop deep as well looking for ways to attack through the middle. City have struggled at times versus sides that keep it tight in the back and then look to counterattack and one reason for this is that they don't have an adequate deep-lying playmaker that can indirectly open up space higher up in the attack.
* I realize this diagram is busy but here's the explanation -- the box is the space between the lines where City's attackers tend to gravitate towards, the solid arrows indicate player movement, the dotted arrows indicate the through balls that are attempted from this space between the lines.
This suggested approach isn't as tactically negative as it may sound. In the back, the idea is to keep the lines compact and not too high so that space is suffocated for City's already narrow attack. There is still a midfield battle to be had as well and if calm possession can be had and if Yaya Toure's driving runs can be contained, then control can be had and this too would limit the supply to their dangerous attack. By sitting relatively deep and absorbing pressure, space obviously opens up for a counterattack and United have deep-lying playmakers in Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick that can quickly ignite breaks from deep for pacey and versatile attackers.
If United sit in a 4-1-4-1ish shape, they can use a tactically intelligent player like Carrick to patrol the space between the lines. A more combative player like Phil Jones might be better suited physically to defend this space but the youngster's energy may be better used to combat Toure -- who typically operates right of center in City's midfield while Gareth Barry likes to sit deeper in a left-central role -- higher up the pitch. If Jones can adequately duel with Toure, then this might free up the likes of Scholes and Carrick to pull the strings from deep. As just mentioned, Barry will sit deep and he won't be in a position to close United's deep-lying playmakers. Furthermore, United have no need to close Barry down as he doesn't possess the same playmaking ability from that deep zone like his counterparts do. Stay deep, compact the space between the lines, mark Toure, and let Barry have the ball -- that's been a tactical template that has worked for many of City's opponents this season.
If United do sit somewhat deep and take away an attacker in favor of an extra midfielder, then the key to attack will be have both pace and versatility. Fergie may have a difficult decision whether or not to drop the in-form Antonio Valencia if he elects to deploy his side in a 4-3-3/4-5-1ish shape. The front three may need to be interchangeable in order to provide enough variation for an effective attack. Valencia is brilliantly simple in that he's often unplayable when he receives near the right touchline, beats his marker in a 1 v 1 situation, and gets to the byline to supply United's attack with incisive crosses. However, that approach is better suited for a front four and the use of Nani, Danny Welbeck, and Wayne Rooney should be able to provide enough interchangeability, pace, and tactical versatility for a front three. It's very possible that Valencia's directness would limit this needed variation.
Rooney's all-around game has been somewhat lacking as of late but his finishing hasn't. Therefore, he may be best suited to lead the line nearest to goal in a false 9 sort of role. Welbeck could also play this role but allowing him to play deeper might put a bit less pressure on his inconsistent finishing while also allowing him to play deeper so that he could help link the midfield with attack. He and Rooney could switch roles as well at any point in the match. Nani provides more unpredictability all across the attacking third and he's capable of providing a moment of individual brilliance from an improbable counterattacking situation. I've been curious to see how these three would operate together as a front three and they might be the closest thing we've had since our Rooney/Tevez/Cristiano Ronaldo counterattacking trident from 2007-09 era.
My hunch is that Fergie elects to deploy his side in a relatively deep-defending 4-4-1-1 shape -- not all too dissimilar to the approach taken in this season's FA Cup match. However, my worry in this shape is that our lines aren't staggered enough and in the instances where space opens up between those two defending banks of four, that could be the genesis of moments where City creates goalscoring chances. Defending that space may be the biggest tactical key in this match. We don't need need victory, but we sure as hell can't lose this match. Therefore, a structured 4-1-4-1 shape may be the most optimal approach to take in this possible title-decider.