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article imageUnited's mobile youngsters breach City's poor midfield structure

By Tyrrell Meertins     Mar 20, 2016 in Sports
Manuel Pellegrini showcased improved pragmatism against his prestigious Premier League rivals this season, but in a decisive derby against rivals Manchester United, the Chilean’s XI signified City’s intent.
However, where Pellegrini’s approach at Old Trafford was based around competing in the midfield zone, here, Yaya Toure and Fernandinho sat ahead of the defence, meaning City played without a natural holder. Essentially, the contrast in midfield organization proved decisive — where Van Gaal’s men aimed to man-mark across the pitch, the hosts were once again susceptible to clever movement.
City’s issues without the ball have been exploited quite frequently this season, and many European campaigns in the past, which explains why Van Gaal’s direct attacking quartet always posed a threat to the hosts. Van Gaal fielded Marcus Rashford upfront to chase balls into the channels, Lingard’s running was utilized in central areas, Martial was tasked with initiating 1v1 battles in transition, while Mata sought out space in transition to play forward passes.
A strong defence is based around discipline, the ability to defend, familiarity and partnerships — however, Eliaquim Mangala and Martin Demichelis are not only third and fourth choice centre-backs, but have developed into liabilities at the back. Pellegrini’s men were unable to bypass United’s pressing with relative ease with Jesse Lingard pressing Fernandinho, and Morgan Schneiderlin swarming Yaya Toure.
Elsewhere, Sergio Aguero was often pushed away from goal as United centre-backs, Daley Blind, and Chris Smalling quickly pressed the Argentine international when he dropped deep to receive the ball. Aguero forced both centre-backs into bookings with sharp movement on the half-turn, but the City striker’s aim to storm into legitimate goal-scoring position’s behind the defence was negated.
Although Rashford’s winner was United’s first offensive move into City’s half, it vividly highlighted the recurring issue Pellegrini’s men have encountered with Toure and Fernandinho as a midfield pair during the Chilean’s tenure. Toure was caught in an advanced position on Carrick — possibly because David Silva had no interest in closing down the United midfielder — which enabled Mata and Schneiderlin to play around Fernandinho, and present Rashford in a 1v1 battle with Martin Demichelis to push United ahead.
Minutes later, City were overloaded in midfield once again. Carrick played a pass into Lingard who quickly charged past Fernandinho before receiving the ball and evading Demichelis, but his heavy touch fell to Martial, who created space to force Joe Hart into a save. Though Fernandinho was at fault for his positioning, this was an area where Pellegrini would have expected Silva to close down Carrick as the United midfielder was in his preferred zone to dictate play.
The hosts improved in the second stage of the opening half due to the introduction of Fernando for the injured Raheem Sterling, which pushed Toure closer to goal behind the isolated Aguero. Though City lost a wide threat from the left, now Toure was free to storm through the United midfield, while Fernando’s presence limited the space the away side located between the lines.
Nevertheless, City’s attacking threat stemmed through wide areas due to United’s diligent work in the centre of the pitch. Silva and Sterling combined well prior to the latter’s first half departure, whereas Navas found some joy against Marcos Rojo on the right. But where United’s transitional attacks were cohesive and well-drilled — City’s spatial awareness and discipline was beneficial — City’s attack was merely based around individualism.
"We did not deserve to lose, we dominated the game from the first minute," said Pellegrini.
"We were the only team who wanted to play the whole game but we missed three or four chance to score. Every player has bad days, Demichelis was nervous, it was not good for him to continue. We didn’t score goals but that is not his fault."
Pellegrini was left with one substitution available minutes into the second half following Hart’s injury, and the City manager summoned Wilfried Bony, for the underwhelming Demichelis. This meant Toure moved back into midfield with Fernando, and Fernandinho joined Mangala at centre-back. Now City possessed an aerial threat in the box, but Toure’s return to midfield left Fernando with ample space to cover in transition.
United found joy in the opening stages of the second half on the counter through Martial, who combined with Lingard on two occasions in the left channel to force Willy Caballero into key saves. City also exceled in wide areas, and while in the past Pellegrini’s men aimed to exploit half space, the constantly pushed their full-backs forward to create space for crosses.
“I'm very happy,” Van Gaal stated. “I think we played a very good first half; second half we had the first chances to score the second but then we fought till the end to survive because a lot of players had cramp but that's logical when you play on Thursday.”
Aguero received crosses from Toure and Silva in search of an equalizer, but he nodded the former’s effort off the post, and lashed the latter’s delivery wide in stoppage time. Likewise, Bony was on the receiving end of City’s quick intricate moves around the box, but Smalling and Carrick made last-ditch blocks to preserve United’s lead. Nonetheless, City rarely tasted goalkeeper David De Gea, and their best route to goal involved tame crosses into the box due to Van Gaal’s effective approach out of possession — swarming Aguero across the the pitch, while man-marking in midfield limited Silva’s impact, and prevented Aguero from breaking into space beyond the last defender.
This was another uninspiring display from a Manchester City side devoid of intensity, guile, and a cohesive attacking plan going forward, yet United’s ability to overrun their poor midfield shape served as the decisive factor. City’s success over the past five years has been based around the individual talent of their core players, but never has it been so evident as the club are now in a fight for the final Champions League spot.
More about MANCHESTER DERBY, Manchester United, Manchester city, RASHFORD, van gaal
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