Manchester derby preview: United's strengths and weaknesses revealed

By Damocles, Sat 28 April 2012 16:39

Manchester derby preview: United's strengths and weaknesses revealed

After a season of ongoing drama between the two Manchester clubs, it was almost destiny that City's first title challenge can be ended, or given a huge boost by way of a derby game. I could talk about all of the famous derbies in the past, about the importance of this particular one in the future of both clubs, about the mind games between the clubs but it's essentially all just words. We know what we have to do. United know what they have to do. It's 11 versus 11 on Monday with the ultimate prize up for grabs.

I don't really do previews, and indeed this is the first. One of the reasons that I originally chose not to do so was because shape alters between each game depending on the opposition and their strengths, so trying to draw parallels from watching a one or two games that you can predict events with doesn't work. In preparation for this then, I analysed the United-Wigan game, the United-Aston Villa game, the United-City games (the league and cup game), and of course I have my analysis notes from City-Wolves, City-Norwich and City-West Brom games handy. What follows are the general trends noted and what I believe to be an accurate picture.

United aren't as simple as they may first appear. Although they set up with a basic 4-4-2, it's incredibly fluid and adapts to a 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 or 6-3-1 depending upon whether they are in possession of the ball and where the threat is coming from.

Their basic 4-4-2 shape, and also what I believe will be their line up against City, is De Gea in goal, Rafael at right back, Ferdinand and Evans in the centre, Evra at left back. On the left wing is Ashley Young, whilst Valencia is on the right with Scholes and Carrick operating in the centre. Rooney and Welbeck are up front.

However, the United team seems to work in blocks. The full backs and the wingers represent one block. The centre backs and the centre mids are another block, whilst the strikers are the other block. their movement and fluidity depends not only on whether they are in possession or not, but what their partner is also up to.

The fullbacks and the wingers move in tandem with each other, and take turns providing width. Whilst Young or Valencia might come wide, Evra will tuck in centrally and vice versa. Defensively, they often end up side by side when teams have the ball in the centre D and United's line is deep. This translates into 6 at the back, with a sort of diamond like midfield/attack sat in front of them. I'm not sure that we'll have much joy down here, as Valencia and Young are incredibly organised dropping back and we won't be able to create overloads. Our West Brom system relied on our fullbacks getting forwards and an attacking midfielder moving over to create a passing triangle on the wing, giving us both an overload and space to breath in possession. As I see Yaya playing, I don't think that we will have the fluidity necessary to create these as Barry cannot be his pivot point that sets them up.

United's central block is a square consisting of Ferdinand and Evans with Scholes and Carrick. It's actually a bit weird how the defence and deep lying centre mids move in tandem, almost like they were tied together. Apart from Evans, that is. Now, let me start by saying that I rate Evans quite highly and he has been an excellent defender this year. He's good in the air, he can pass a ball, he can run with it, and his tackling is pretty good. However, he constantly breaks his own defensive line akin to what Zab does for us when he presses the wrong zone. He's far too willing to get right up close to an attacker and will cover 5-10 yards to do so. If he attempts this with Tevez, Aguero, Nasri and Silva, they'll ping the ball around him and potentially embarrass him. Our greatest strength is the expressive movement, quick passing and intelligent movement of our players and Johnny Evans just became the man in City's collective crosshairs. If United want anything out of this game, Scholes and Ferdinand have got to help Evans. Speaking of 'Plug' Ferdinand, his biggest defensive weakness seems to be how long it takes him to turn when he is running back towards his own goal. I imagine that his "never fully healed" back injury that almost retired him a few years back has something to do with this but in combination with Evans, you can see where I think the gaps will be Scholes and Carrick work extremely well together, it must be said. Scholes is the guy who wants to get his boot on it, whilst Carrick does pre-emptive marking. Marking wise, United employ a mixed system of both zonal and man marking depending upon where the threat is coming from. In the defensive third, it's almost always man marking but the space in front of that is where they mark space. They block off the space to passes that they do not want the opposition to take but leave obvious gaps so the man in possession has a teammate to pass to. As he attempts the pass, they immediately close the man down and try to nick it. This will be interesting to watch against City, purely because it relies on Scholes and Carrick (two very intelligent footballers) reading the game better than the man in possession, who could well be Nasri, Silva, Toure or Barry.

Up front, their attacking block is a simplistic "give and go" system. One will always stay high up whilst the other one has free roam on the pitch. Although Rooney is famous for his dropping back, it's a rotation system between him and Welbeck and Welbeck is no slouch himself in the attacking midfield positions.

The football they play consists of a combination of counter attacking and wing play, with the objective being trying to find space for their players between the D of the 18 yard box and the penalty spot. This is not United in their pomp though. With a team consisting of Tevez, Ronaldo and Rooney up front, they broke with speed and precision passing, using one-two combinations all the way up the pitch. This toned down version of United however is a little slower on the break than they were and rely on much more through balls onto the wings.

One thing struck me after sitting and analysing their games in such detail. There is no joyfulness in the football of Manchester United. There is very little expressiveness, none of their players seem to be enthused and they are disciplined. Much of their chances are created from well drilled patterns of play emanating from (I imagine) months and years of hairdryer treatments on rainy, muddy pitches at Carrington with their stern eyed Scot overlooking their every move. Ferguson knows how to be successful and it shows in their organisation. They are a very well oiled machine, moving not only in the blocks mentioned earlier but these blocks then moving in relation to other blocks. It's the footballing equivalent of Ivan Drago; all disciplined strength but seemingly no love for the game or self awareness. David Silva could not play in this system; it would kill him just like it killed Juan Sebastian Veron, another player who required the trust and expressiveness that Manchester United do not allow their players to have. At their highest levels with the triumvirate of Tevez, Ronaldo and Rooney, they allowed their players to shine and shine they did but as their flair players moved on they were replaced with "efficient players" like Valencia and Young. Over the last 5-10 years, United have created Picasso and made him paint commemorative plates with cats on.

Yes, he's much more efficient and successful by normal standards but they've killed his spirit. And that's what Man United lack at the moment; the artistic spirit of adventure that enthuses all of us who love the game, players and fans alike. This is why Scholes is still so important to them in a wider sense, he's the only one who brings joy to their ruthlessness. This is also why they can take poor players and win them Champions League medals (Wes Brown, Ronny Johnson, Jesper Blomqvist, etc), because their players aren't important, they are just machines on the pitch who execute the instructions laid out before them.

Philosophy aside, the meat and potatoes of the United side has always been their ability to recreate these drills. They have a few favourites that City need to watch out for.

The first one is a counter attacking move which constantly puts them into dangerous positions. In a breaking situation, a long ball is played up to a man up front, who then brings it to feet, passes it five yards back to a player running up to them, who immediately plays a direct/long through ball to the wings. The players are different but the movement is always the same, with the objective of getting either Scholes or Rooney behind the man holding up the ball. Young and Valencia see this coming a mile off and when the ball gets to the feet of the man up front (Welbeck or Rooney), they know to get as wide as the pitch allows and get a sprint on as there's a through ball coming.

This one is an interesting one to play against City and I'm not sure if it will work as well against other teams. It all relies on somebody pressuring the big man's back in defence and losing out on control, leaving the passer free. Playing a disciplined stopper such as De Jong would alleviate this though and even if the pass does manage to get through, we don't use our full backs in set piece situations in which we're attacking anyway so it's a straight speed race.

The second one is the breaking midfielder routine. When Carrick or Scholes find themselves in a Yaya Toure style piece of space to run into, they don't try power their way through. Instead, they will carry the ball five yards, Rooney will drop back to provide a one-two pass and they end up carrying the ball another five yards into the opposition area. Again you'd be surprised how many times this particular passage of play is successful and it's always the same characters involved.

I feel that this centre approach to build up is actually more of a threat than wing play, simply because our pressing routine in the final defensive third makes the one-two an enemy. The absolutely pivotal thing here is to make sure that it is a defensive midfielder and not a defender who is tracking the backwards run of Rooney, as this is the space which they most often try to exploit, particularly Welbeck who makes more shadow runs that confuse defenders than he does active runs in which he tries to receive the ball in the box. I'm happy enough that Tevez would track any run back from Scholes or more likely Carrick and Lescott won't get suckered out. As a quick aside, Lescott has come on leaps and bounds under Mancini in not getting suckered in at the wrong time, and under Hughes he used to constantly piss me off by getting beaten by one-twos.

Another is more of a "finishing touch" thing than an actual piece of build up play. The build up play is the phase of play that gets you into the position to make a finishing touch, or an assist to make it a bit less wordy. Every man and his dog is aware of the threat that Valencia and Young pose from the wings. However, United are not a team who rely on aerial strength; almost every cross from the wing is at knee level or below and it's very rarely behind the line of defence. Those times when it is behind the lines come from Valencia smacking the ball across the goal and hoping for a foot out, something that I advised City's wingers to do a few reviews ago.

In crossing situations, Rooney LOVES to run diagonally from front post to back post, then check his run at the last minute and find some space around the penalty area. In fact, changing the speed of his run is probably the single most way that he manages to create himself five yards of space and it's a bit unpredictable to the exact moment when he will do it. Valencia and Young both see, to try and find him with a low sidefoot pass to a few yards above the pen spot even if he has yet to check his run. Welbeck much prefers to go to the front post and hope for a smash pass in the between the keeper and defence, whilst Scholes or Carrick are always on the bounds of the box in case it drops there.

I'm officially worried about this. I mentioned in the Wolves Review that one of the problems that comes from our double pressing man system on the wings (when Clichy/Barry move over to the left back spot to press a right winger for example), is that it creates a large gap just outside of the area IF the winger runs to the touchline and cuts the pass back across. This is Rooney territory, and when he has the ball and a bit of space here, he's absolutely lethal. There are several ways to deal with this, and all of them seem to involve breaking defensive shape (which I don't think we like to do) or alternatively give up some attacking option (which we definitely don't like to do). Whomever is the attacking midfielder on their side usually tracks the full backs so they can't be central. Either Tevez will need to cover this space or we'll have to wing it a bit and stop the source. I'm betting we stop the source.

It's not all doom and gloom for City, as United's defence is vulnerable to the type of direct balls that we like to play away from home, due to the aforementioned problems with the Ferdinand/Evans partnership. One potential exploit that I have noticed is that they really do not like the ball in between the lines on the wings. If it's just in front of the full back but just behind the winger, both of them are attracted to the ball which creates a few moments of confusion and their centre backs are attracted to the big gap next to them. If we can make shadow runs into that space, we can drag their centre backs across, leaving space in the central positions. For all of their intelligence, Scholes and Carrick are not great at covering the wings defensively and are much better in the centre.

Set piece wise, you can stop Rooney breaking quite easily. As he often takes up the back post position defensively and they use a man marking system, if the man at the back (which would be Zab for us) goes very, very wide, Rooney tends to follow him to become closer to the byline than the centre. If a ball does drop for United, he has that extra few seconds of sprint to do and he isn't in the central position that he prefers to break from.
United like to break as fast as possible on the wings, and De Gea has a very good kick which will often create this opportunity. He REALLY doesn't like to be pressed when a defender passes back though and often hesitates.

On attacking set pieces, Scholes is a huge threat and often the man who the cross is aimed towards. I'm sure everybody knows the score here, Scholes sits on the outside of the box and tries to get a hit in wherever possible. In our defensive setup, Silva is left as the free man who can break quickly, and it is his job to cover the territory just outside of the box so he'll need to keep his concentration levels up. Just as a quick point though, a centre midfield of Scholes and Carrick are poor in getting back to stop the counter and as they leave their full backs up often, this is another potential flashpoint for City.

All in all, the game will probably go as many expect. City will use their superior movement to try and create space whilst United will use direct balls over to the wings as their main style. We have potential overload opportunities as do they but the deck is not slanted in either favour as much as we'd like to believe. This isn't just a fight for the title. This is a fight for the crown of Manchester, a fight for art against efficiency, for intelligence and expression over discipline and organisation. City are organised and have their system but we rely on the beauty of our play to create much of our chances. We invite people to join us, and to flower. United invite people to go to them and have all forms of free thinking eradicated for the good of the system. It's individualism against fascism. United move like a tank, City move like a ninja. Two completely contrasting clubs with completely contrasting styles and completely contrasting players.

As I mentioned, I'm shit at prediction so I won't bother. What I will say, is that if we're at our best; at our most fluid, our most expressive, our most artistic, our most beautiful and magnificent, if we are at our most free, we will always triumph. We are not United and we should not try to be. We are different and we must walk on to that pitch not as the soldiers that United will bring, but as the eleven visionaries that we are. We must show them a steel nerve, a hard fight but also display the joyfulness of the game that they sold their footballing souls for.

Bring on Monday.