A high-intensity derby at Old Trafford on Sunday finished with Manchester United ahead of Manchester City both in the match, 4-2, and in the Premier League table, by four points. After conceding in the eighth minute of a chaotic start, United took control of the match and didn’t look vulnerable again until City’s consolation goal in the 89th.
United manager Louis van Gaal settled on a 4-1-4-1 system, with Michael Carrick ahead of the back line and Wayne Rooney as the lone striker. Again, neither Radamel Falcao nor Ángel di María started, though they both made appearances off the bench.
On the other end, Manuel Pellegrini’s 4-2-3-1 emphasized interchange on the left in attack through David Silva, James Milner and Sergio Agüero. Defensively, City tried to keep United from playing out of the back through some successful high pressing early in the match.
City emphasized limiting the space United’s midfielders had on the ball through one-on-one marking. Milner pressured Carrick, even when he dropped between the center backs to play out, while Fernandinho and Yaya Touré took Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini, respectively.
Finally, fullbacks Gaël Clichy and Pablo Zabaleta marked United wingers Juan Mata and Ashley Young. Due to the close attention and a frantic tempo in the opening 15 minutes, United looked uncomfortable on the ball and conceded possession often in its own half.
City overwhelmed its opponent and opened the scoring on a fluid combination down the left. Milner pulled wide, making space for an inside run from Silva, who found Sergio Agüero with a central ball on the ground for an easy tap-in.
However, it’s hard to keep up the adrenaline and energy that naturally comes with the kickoff of an important match. City’s level dropped steadily after scoring, and its impressively executed one-to-one press became slow enough that United could build attacks patiently from the defense to forward.
After struggling to pass through the early pressure, Carrick’s composure and control in particular turned momentum the other way. In the 14th minute, United recirculated possession from the right side to the left through goalkeeper David de Gea’s excellent, driven long pass to Herrera on the wing.
Young cut inside, getting to the cross at the near post just ahead of Clichy, and scored on his own rebound. The second United goal 13 minutes later also came down the left, as would most of the home side’s most dangerous attacks.
United showed great patience building its attacks, getting the ball forward and switching play quickly to the weak side to unbalance and overload the City defense. Young and Daley Blind’s close relationship and smart decisions on the left offered the biggest threat.
On United’s second, they combined in the half-space on the border of the penalty area before Young swung a cross to the back post for Fellaini to head home. That play personified United’s fairly straightforward strategy on the wings, with players generally maintaining their proper positions instead of interchanging as City’s did earlier.
The central players remained more mobile than their wide partners, with the exception of Young’s run inside on the first goal, but the 4-1-4-1 shape offered effective opportunities to combine through triangles naturally created in attack.
United’s third goal, in the 66th minute, came off another long spell of possession. After watching his team swing the ball side-to-side around the back, Mata ran off Rooney’s shoulder and into space Martin Demichelis left as he stepped to pressure in midfield and disrupted City’s shape.
Mata finished the move well, although he was clearly offside as Rooney played the ball through.
Van Gaal’s plan proved more sustainable than Pellegrini’s because it relied on his players’ decision-making and tactical nous rather than an energy level that could not be maintained. Particularly when Carrick drove forward and shook off his mark, United usually had multiple options and more players in the attacking space than City had defenders.
Despite being under constant pressure, Carrick completed 54 passes, the most of any player in the match, for a 92-percent success rate. He also intercepted four balls, all “in the hole” ahead of the back four, where classic defensive midfielders roam to break up plays.
All season, he has completed 90 percent of his passes. In a league where midfield play is often chaotic and won by which team can better fend off opposition pressure, Carrick provides that calming presence and quarterbacks United’s attacks.
Traditional Dutch characteristics earmark the calm, possession-based style van Gaal eventually instilled at United this season. It’s similar to what he put in place at Ajax, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and the Dutch national team last summer: a simple but deadly passing game build on a fluid framework of a variation on the 4-3-3 system.
After entering the season with the stated goal of getting United back into the Champions League, the team started poorly, and many fans and pundits wondered whether van Gaal’s difficult personality was getting in the way of the team absorbing his message.
It’s not as if he didn’t warn them what was about to happen, though.
“Every club where I have been, I have struggled for the first three months. After that they know what I want: how I am as a human being and also a manager, because I am very direct,” van Gaal said on a preseason tour of the United States. “A lot of players are playing intuitively and I want them to think and know why they do something. That’s a process that is difficult at first.”
To illustrate his point, he made reference to his first season in charge of Bayern, in which the club sat seventh in the table after three months, only to charge up the standings and win the league. So far at United, after being in sixth place after a 1-0 win over Crystal Palace on Nov. 8, van Gaal’s team has been no lower than fourth place and currently has a four-point lead on City in third.
United has won six in a row in league play; by contrast, City has lost two straight for the first time in Pellegrini’s tenure. After being tied for first place after a win on New Year’s Day, City has won four, drawn three and lost five.
While Pellegrini takes the heat for his team’s waning form, van Gaal deserves credit for his club’s resurgence. He turned out to be exactly the personality and inexorably confident figure United needed. He stuck to his plan and dragged his players to the point where the season’s ultimate goal has been all but reached.
Despite tough matches remaining at Chelsea and against Arsenal for United and at Tottenham Hotspur for City, this could be the result that seals the overall sentiment surrounding this season for both Manchester clubs.