The first half of the season in Premier League worked out pretty well for the city of Manchester as a whole. Fierce rivals in and representatives of the city are on the top of the table as we approach towards the end of the season’s first half. But make no mistake, since the points difference between them are not only on paper. It also reflects their relative weaknesses and strengths, which will be more and more relevant not only in the coming Manchester derby but also in the Christmas period where a pretty hectic fixture is expecting for the teams.
For one thing, Manchester City did well in scoring so far with 41 goals, in comparison to 28 goals scored by Manchester United as the second-most scoring team. This can be seen as a result of City’s style of play under Pep Guardiola. Indeed, his experimental process seems to come to a new phase this season – a phase where he still keeps tinkering on his tactic board but eventually getting some results. This process began when he took over the office at City. Back then, he was both trying to fit his formation and mentality to the squad and getting the right players to play in his system. In terms of formation, having seen his Barça-type 4-3-3 seems to be unsuitable for City and the Premier League, he pondered on different tactics throughout the last season. He tried a few, but we now see that one key thing was his purchase of de Bruyne. If Guardiola’s City is a whole human body, de Bruyne is the ‘brain’. Not only with his killer balls but also with the way he sees and reads the game, he is a pure confirmation of Johan Cruyff’s saying that you play football with your head and your foot are there only to help.
City also gives signals this season that the squad is getting used to playing alongside each other. This is a crucial value for a system like Guardiola’s, since it requires fluidity and fluidity requires the development of an instinct in each player to anticipate the next move of his teammate. When you watch City this season, you see that Otamendi knows where Silva will move to pick up the ball from him. Silva, in turn, knows exactly the direction of Sane’s run, who, with his eyes closed, passes the ball on to Jesus or Agüero who have already moved into channels. It is such a joy to watch the working of such a system especially in the Premier League, where underdogs defend so tightly and in such a discipline that it is virtually impossible to break their walls.
United, on the other hand, from Moyes to van Gaal and ultimately to Mourinho, have been unable to find openings between these walls in a convincing way. Although they started the season with a good form, they still lack what would give Pogba and Lukaku the chances to make themselves United’s new legends. In contrast, City, with a combination of intelligence and freedom they bring in to the game, get the ball closer to opposition goal. By an admirable patience and discipline they batter the opposition defence and make use of the gaps they create. United does not create gaps, they try to find them, but Mourinho knows better than I do that in Premier League it is not more efficient to try to find gaps than creating them. And you create them through intelligence and freedom. Mikhitarian, Mata, Martial, Rashford and Lingaard as attacking powers and Herrera and Fellaini as the supporters have failed to do this in the preceeding seasons. The added value of the Matic-Pogba-Lukaku trio is seen in the number of goals scored this season, but their impact failed to go beyond Ibrahimovic’s contribution to scoresheet last season as a product of his individual talent.
Just take a look at two matches to see the factor behind City’s success. Their average position during the away game against Bournemouth, the third match of the season, is a remarkable example of how Guardiola would like them to play: Only the central defenders, Otamendi and Kompany, are behind the halfway line along with goalkeeper Ederson. Full-backs (Mendy and Danilo) form an M-shape in the middle of the park with Fernandinho (central bottom of M), Silva and de Bruyne (high ends of M). In front of them, there is an nonlinear trio of Bernando Silva, Sterling, and Gabriel Jesus. I pick this match not simply because it depicts Pep’s art, but also because in this match Sane, Walker and Agüero did not start, who are Manchester City’s key components. They won the game 1-2.
The second match is their last one – an away game again, this time against Huddersfield. The scoreline of 1-2 falsely tells that it was a narrow win but in fact City won decisively. I think they ‘battered’ the opponent, leaving them completely miserable, with their 80% of possession (but credits to Huddersfield in finding the opening goal and resisting until the last minutes). United lost to Huddersfield earlier this season, but they had a very similar possession rate with 78%. What City did was, again, playing with pure intelligence and freedom. I mean, I cannot stress enough the importance of these two words for Guardiola’s City. Added to this was their discipline coupled with patience. They stick to their game plan – which actually seems less like a ‘plan’ in comparison to what United did at John Smith’s Stadium. Because Mourinho’s side looks so stringently stick to a mentality of 4-2-3-1, where the attacking trio behind Lukaku finds it difficult to provide Lukaku with enough space to enjoy the feeding by Matic and Pogba. In terms of full backs, although Young and Valencia do support the attacking moves and they are reliable in defence too, they are too far away from Delph and Walker. Remember, both Young and Delph are not originally full backs. Both of them successfully adopted their new positions, but Delph’s versatility seems to fit better into Guardiola’s system than Young’s does with Mou’s (although Delph is kind of a contingency plan in the absence of Danilo and Mendy).
Therefore Manchester as a city, but not ‘City’, celebrates the glory in the current situation, but in a rivalry perspective, the capital-letter C is the net winner. There is still a chance that City will suffer a decrease in their form during the hectic pre- and post-Christmas fixture. Actually, even without such a fixture, Guardiola’s adoption of his system into the Premier League context will not be as ‘perfect’ as it was in Barcelona and Bayern Münich. But he and his City proved this season that they have eventually find their rhythm. Players are used to each other more than ever, and the newcomer fullback trio of Danilo, Walker and Mendy are the perfect buys to bolster this rhythm.
United, in turn, will find it even more difficult to close the gap with City. Mourinho’s system looks way less innovative than Guardiola’s. To me it is not convincing to say that he parks the bus and is overly pragmatic tactically. Rather, the number of goals United scored so far this season reflects that United takes advantage of the weak sides and Mourinho actually makes changes o kill the game in such instances. The worst side is, however, he failed to make the significant leap in the opposition box after van Gaal. They are still resorting to rather conventional ways such as crosses (and sometimes Pogba’s killer balls). They need to do more than this as a team. And if Mata, Mikhitarian, Rashford, Lingaard and Martial are the only hopes for this, then a Champions League place for the next season will be the only realistic expectation.