Talking tactics ahead of the Manchester Derby

James Milner challenges Patrice Evra

As the old chant goes, Manchester United fans rarely want anything but their team to “Attack, Attack, Attack (and so on)” the opposition but they face perhaps their most difficult test of the season so far. Manchester City are a rather unfathomable side, for they display great attacking intent one game or tremendous defensive tactics the next.

In the somewhat-dour reverse fixture back in November, which ended 0-0, the Red Devils played a 4-3-3 with Dimitar Berbatov up front as a lone striker; this proved ineffective although United are set to opt for the very same system this time around. Yes, United have favoured a traditional 4-4-2 this season, something which Jonathan Wilson described as an “oddity given the tribulations Ferguson went through trying to adapt to a single-striker system in the early part of the decade, and probably another indication of how his resources have been reduced.”

Yet, United’s resources are hardly reduced this time around – those were Wilson’s comments in the build up to the last Derby game when Wayne Rooney’s fitness was a concern and Dimitar Berbatov represented something of an enigma to the press. Javier Hernandez received plaudits at this time, but the general (yet premature) thinking was, and still is, that he’ll only thrive in a system where he is partnered by another forward. Now, all three are in form (Rooney to an extent), and that itself, though very basic, might be a reason to play a 4-4-2.

However, the 4-4-2 itself is a risk. Berbatov, for his twenty goals this campaign, is set to miss out and United should stick with their ‘big game’ formation, which is the 4-3-3. Much has been spoken of Berbatov’s apparent inability to play as a lone striker, yet in a few instances he has thrived in this role. It is true, though, that the 4-4-2 suits him best – playing higher up the pitch he has found considerable success. Another reason why United usually opt for the 4-3-3 in games of perceived importance is the success often found by United’s three central midfielders – and this ties in with why Berbatov is at expense of the system. Recollecting a game against Milan last season, Sir Alex said:

“It’s hard [to include Berbatov] when we decide to play three central midfield players. That’s the difficulty for him. We could have played him in Milan but the threesome of Scholes, Carrick and Fletcher have created a consistency, a level of performance that makes it difficult to change, particularly in those kind of matches. Every time I have spoken to him [Berbatov] he understands what we are doing.”

It is also interesting to point out that Berbatov was indeed the lone man in the reverse fixture. He was ineffective; but it would be unfair on him to make a conclusion out of that game. But the system is not about one man, and the importance of 4-3-3 in this Derby would be that it would best stifle City’s midfield trio. Nigel De Jong, Gareth Barry and Yaya Toure have all been excellent this season – and in order to contain them, United must play a 4-3-3. It could mean another bore 0-0, however.

Manchester City have often been criticised for their defensive system; against Arsenal, their gameplan was to avoid defeat in 90 minutes something which they succeeded in doing. There is nothing wrong with how City are set up; it might make for a dull encounter but Mancini’s tactics are rather clever. The aim is not to lose away from home – it screams out ‘anti-football’ but what it does mean is that their bitterest rivals also drop two points. Long-term, it’s a very good idea.

City do have their weaknesses, though. They often heavily rely on width offered by their full backs, but are a team that are tight and compact in the middle so United could focus on attacking them via the channels. Playing a 4-4-2, it must be included, would particularly be a no-no considering their midfield presence. United can match them in the centre of the park; but as to who United will play there remains to be seen. Fletcher is a certainty, but Carrick and Anderson will face competition from Paul Scholes for the two remaining spots (Personally, I’d leave Scholes on the bench). Nani and Park will occupy the flanks, with Rooney in the centre.

One thing for sure, and as stark as this sounds, it perhaps wouldn’t be an enthralling game as billed and might bear many similarities to the reverse fixture. Goals, if we were to have any, will come from set-pieces, or from the flanks and, naturally, from counter attacks. Prediction? Too hard to call…

United (4-3-3): Van der Sar; O’Shea, Brown, Vidic, Evra; Carrick, Anderson, Fletcher; Nani, Park, Rooney


13 responses to “Talking tactics ahead of the Manchester Derby”

  1. gonzalo says :

    Why won’t Rafael be playing? Is he injured?

    • The Gaffer says :

      Rafael should be okay and will probably play. This is an unpopular opinion; but I’ll go safe and play O’Shea for the Derby. He’s no-frills, but gets the job done immaculately.

      Just to note, these line ups aren’t ‘predicted’ – they’re more of what I would do if I was Fergie!

  2. jonssonmufc says :

    Great blog.

    I honestly think it would be very naive and foolish do play 4-4-2 against City. We will be outnumbered in the midfield and get nowhere attacking wise. It’s easy to point out that we played 0-0 last game with 4-3-3, but we also won a few games last season against them playing 4-3-3. I will be very surprised if SAF decides to form a 4-4-2.

    So, 4-3-3. I think Carrick is more of a certainty than Fletch, but I think both of them will play with Ando in the midfield. And I don’t think SAF will to leave out both Scholes and Giggs in a derby like this. So I think we’ll see Nani and Giggs on the wings.

    It’s tough, but I also think Berba needs to be left out of the starting XI and play Rooney up there.

    So I think we will see a starting XI like this: VDS; Rafael, Vida, Smalls, Evra; Fletch, Carrick, Ando; Nani, Rooney, Giggs. Subs: Kuz, Evans, Park, Scholes, Gibson, Berba, Chicharito

    Tough to start Smalling, but it would be typical SAF (in a good way) to start him now that Rio is out. Young players need these sort of games as well.

    • The Gaffer says :

      Nice comment.

      I agree on pretty much every point! Yeah, Smalling/Evans would get the nod – but in a perfect world, and if I were boss (oh…), I’d play Brown (sentimental reasons more than anything!)

      I opted Park ahead of Giggs purely because he is United’s ‘big game player’ – but wouldn’t be surprised if the Welshman did get the nod. We might even see Giggs in the centre.

  3. Dil says :

    Good luck RED DEVILS as you need mother luck this time otherwise CITY will spoil the party… so set the tempo very very high if not misery!!

  4. Rob says :

    Good shout for team jonnsonmufc i reckon with chica and park coming on with plenty energy we’ll win it the last 20

  5. Edward Godwin says :

    If really SAF want united to win this derby,he’ll play 4 3 3 because that is the only way we can match this great man city team.
    The line up will look like dis:

  6. VIshnu says :

    great blog mate, i agree with you on 4-3-3, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Rooney was sacrificed to the left hand side of the attacking triumvirate to play Berba at the point, with nani on the right. as for O’shea/Rafael, i’d pick Rafael, because I think he’s a better crosser, a better tackler and shows more energy than John does. Carrick, Anderson and Fletcher in the midfield to start, with Giggs/ Park and Scholes to come on if we are leading, or Chicharito/Owen to come on if we need a goal.

  7. Sleepy Nik says :

    I think we all agree that the starting lineup could vary depending on what mood SAF wakes up in on Sat morning! Some great discussion here, and much the same as I have pondered all week in writing my own… I think I have gone with something in between Eriks, the Gaffer’s and Vishnu’s!

    Either way we will win lads eh?! and should be great motivator for that elusive 19th! 🙂

  8. mick says :

    jez!…i can’t believe i’ve actually found a messageboard with what i can only describe as intelligent united fans! makes such a difference to read constructive, knowledgable comments as opposed to the usual “we’ll stuff the bitters “rubbish i usually find on utd boards, nice one lads….oh by the way ,if you’re interested in a city viewpoint,i think it’ll be close , just one goal in it either way……..but surely you guys don’t think berbatov should be dropped for rooney?..for the first time i am beginning to regret not getting berbatov from spurs.

  9. BergkampHenry says :

    id expect city to approach this game like they did at the Emirates, with 10 men behind the ball and a very compact organised defence. Considering ferdinand is out it seems the united defence could be a tad shaky, and throwing too many players forward to find a breakthrough could open up an opportunity for a City Counter. As a neutral i think the game will end as a draw, as it would take a monumental effort from United to find a goal without exposing the defence, and unless luck shines on united for the umpteenth time this season i just dont see city conceding.

  10. luckystriker says :

    I’d normally agree with a tight, low-scoring game (if not a bore draw) but this season we have a habit of scoring early. If we do get an early goal, we’ll punish City further on the break but I also think they’re too good to keep a clean sheet against. I’m in a good TGIF mood so I’ll predict 3-1 to Utd 😉

    As for the starting lineup, jonssonmufc’s post is spot on.

  11. Red Ben says :

    Smalling confirmed by Sir Alex. I think this is good because Evans is terrible in the air (important against Dzeko if he plays). Smalling has also looked the real deal whenever he has played. Rio’s natural successor.

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