Manchester City survived José Mourinho’s second-half tactical copycatting and a catastrophic debut from goalkeeper Claudio Bravo to translate their first-half pre-eminence into Pep Guardiola’s maiden Manchester derby victory.
City exploit space in channels
Manchester United appeared powerless to stem the flow of chances emanating from their gaping inside-left and inside-right channels in the opening 40 minutes. City’s wide players maintained their width, tempting full-backs Antonio Valencia and Luke Shaw to detach from Mourinho’s preferred narrow defensive moorings.
Fernandinho’s disciplined defence-guarding permitted David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne the freedom to exploit the resultant space. It took all of three minutes for de Bruyne to reach the byline in receipt of Nicolas Otamendi’s channel ball, but the Belgian’s subsequent cross narrowly evaded the toe of Raheem Sterling.
Strangely, despite pulling apart United’s defence for fun, City’s opener arrived via the most agricultural of means, when covering defender Daley Blind picked the wrong time to snooze, allowing de Bruyne to profit from Kelechi Iheanacho’s headed flick-on and score.
Blind was at fault again for City’s second, when both he and Jesse Lingard were taken out of the game by de Bruyne’s simple change of direction in the United area.
United front-four slow counter-attacks to crawl
Owing to the aforementioned freedom afforded to City’s two ‘free eights’, Guardiola’s side consistently looked vulnerable to fast breaks throughout this period of dominance.
Fortunately for the visitors, Mourinho erred in his starting selection by handing a first league start to both Lingard and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, neither of whom looked up to the pace of such a frenzied encounter.
Ponderous play from both wide players, coupled with the inherently pedestrian pace at which both Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic now ply their respective trades, saw an outnumbered City recover to smother several promising counter-attacking opportunities.
When the hosts did half City’s deficit, Ibrahimovic’s goal was largely attributable to a handling error from Bravo, who also very nearly gifted the Swede a second on the stroke of half-time thanks to a mix-up with Bacary Sagna.
The former Barcelona goalkeeper was also extremely fortunate not to at least concede a penalty for a desperate 57th-minute lunge on Rooney, necessary to retrieve the ball after a poor touch had sent it astray – a fortunate sparing of Guardiola’s blushes from referee Mark Clattenburg, considering the rationale upon which Bravo’s signing was justified.
Mou mimicry upturns momentum
Ever keen to respond quickly to unfolding on-field events, Mourinho enacted a bold double substitution at half-time to turn the game’s momentum on its head. Mimicking Guardiola’s set-up, the Portuguese introduced Ander Herrera at the base of midfield in a 4-1-4-1, with teenage sensation Marcus Rashford deployed on the left wing.
Both Rashford and Rooney, now stationed on the right flank, were tasked with hugging their respective touchlines and creating the space for Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini to throw Guardiola’s dual-free-eight gambit back in the City manager’s face.
Now also pressing high, and forcing Bravo to go long from goal-kicks, suddenly the hosts stood in control of the game’s tempo. An early close-range chance for Ibrahimovic, created after Rashford turned Sagna on the left-touchline, prompted Guardiola to respond by beefing up his central midfield cohort, with Iheanacho sacrificed in favour of Fernando.
The Brazilian’s introduction to the central midfield fray did not stop Fellaini from representing a persistent aerial threat in the inside-right channel. The Belgian bruiser was unfortunate not to convert his manager’s tactical shift into an unlikely equaliser, when his headed flick-on was struck wide from Ibrahimovic under pressure from John Stones.
With de Bruyne now employed as a false nine, City represented a far greater threat on the counter-attack than United had in response to City’s first-half abandon.
The visitors outmanned their hosts during several second-half counter-attacking sorties, but the Belgian’s second woodwork dalliance of the game, in response to Leroy Sané’s through pass, was the closest Guardiola’s side came to extending their advantage.
Eventually, with just under ten minutes of normal time remaining, Mourinho resorted to a familiar last throw of the dice, with Anthony Martial installed on the right of midfield in a gung-ho 3-3-4 formation.
Owing to the sheer weight of red-shirted numbers that awaited them, long balls pumped into the City box began to look very likely to bear fruit. Moments before introducing Pablo Zabaleta as a fifth defender, Guardiola could be observed frantically shouting “Five!” from the touchline at his beleaguered defensive unit.
Despite looking deeply uncertain in possession of a lead, as it had done against Sunderland, Stoke and West Ham United, Pep’s defence held out to secure City’s fourth consecutive league victory.
A maiden Premier League clean sheet still eludes an error-prone City, but on the basis of his side’s stunning first-half performance here, end-of season glory may await Guardiola regardless.