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Tactical Analysis: Manchester United paid the price for scoring too soon in the derby

Although the two clubs’ fates have been on diverging trajectories for quite a few years now, the Manchester derby has remained a pretty closely-contested fixture.

In his previous seven seasons at Manchester City, Pep Guardiola lost the majority of the league derbies he oversaw at the Etihad Stadium.

However, the balance of power has been shifting. Man City had won five of the last six fixtures with 16 goals scored going into their latest meeting with Manchester United, so they were firm favourites.

The Red Devils were well out of form having lost ten league matches already this season. The pressure was building on Erik ten Hag as the INEOS group came in and took charge of the sporting direction for the club.

A good result in the derby would not totally salvage his reputation, but it would have been a step in the right direction.

The Dutchman seemed to recognise that he would need to do something special, as he sprung a few surprises with his team selection.

Looking at this starting XI, a few possibilities seemed likely regarding the formation. A 4-2-3-1 with Bruno Fernandes on the right wing and Marcus Rashford down the middle seemed most likely, while a diamond in midfield with Rashford and Alejandro Garnacho up top seemed an interesting alternative.

However, Rashford started on the left, Garnacho on the right and Fernandes through the middle with Scott McTominay quite close to him.


Man United must have expected to spend much more time out of possession in this fixture, so how they set up defensively was most intriguing.

Right from the off, they seemed happy to drop into a 4-4-2 low block, although the wingers sought to push up and force the opposition back whenever the opportunity presented itself.

Then, with their first attack of the match, United scored the opener thanks to a thunderous strike from Rashford.

Saying that a team has ‘scored too soon’ is often considered a tired cliche, but in this case, it might have applied to United.

After taking the lead, they dropped even deeper and camped in their own third, defending in and around the box with all ten outfielders.

While this might have frustrated Man City for long periods of the first half, it also took any attacking threat out of their game.

Rashford’s goal was their first shot of the game and they happened to chance on another about fifteen minutes later, but then failed to register anything until the end when they were two goals down.

There are no two ways about it – Man United were utterly dominated by every metric.

(Image credit: FotMob)

They were fortunate to go into the half-time break with their lead intact as Erling Braut Haaland somehow missed from almost underneath the crossbar.

However, it was clear to everyone that the Red Devils would inevitably concede at some point if they did not make any changes for the second half.

Ten Hag seemingly liked what he saw enough to keep things unchanged, but his team paid the price for it soon enough.

A weak link in their defence was centre-back Victor Lindelöf deputising at left-back for the injured Luke Shaw, so Man City sought to use Phil Foden to run at him. The young Englishman threatened throughout the match and made a telling contribution in the 56th minute with a wonder strike of his own.

Man United’s subsequent substitutions were no more than like-for-like replacements and did nothing to change their approach, as they seemed happy to cling on to a point.

Unsurprisingly and deservedly, that was taken away from them by Foden’s second goal in the 80th minute, after which Haaland sealed the deal.

Man United may have been able to do something with this line-up if they tried to use the attacking threat of Rashford and Garnacho down the wings, with McTominay supporting them as a target for long balls and Fernandes supplying passes.

Perhaps that was their initial intention. But, they sat far too deep and never came out of their shell after taking the lead.

In such cases, it is sometimes difficult to ascertain whether this negative approach came from the players or head coach. In this case, Ten Hag kindly answered that question himself.

If he were the coach of a relegation-battling club going to the home of the defending champions and reflecting on this performance, this would be a fair assessment.

However, the United manager is expected to get his team to play much more proactively against any opponents. Their approach in this derby was an admission of inferiority to Man City, which will not go down well with the fans.

More importantly, this completely contradicted what he said about his style of play just before it.

Ten Hag has undone all the optimism his team built up in the latter half of the last season with some very confusing decisions throughout this campaign, including in several matches United won.

That trend continued in one of their biggest games of the season. At this point, parting ways with him in the summer seems increasingly sensible.

Stats courtesy Opta via FotMob.

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