Manchester Derby: Pep Guardiola's system at City is nearing perfection, but United could break it down

When two teams from the same city with a rivalry dating back to the early twentieth century meet in a top-of-the-table clash, it is no ordinary match. In a Manchester Derby being broadcast in all but four countries in the world, Old Trafford will witness City and United face off in a six-pointer, which will go a long way in determining who picks up the trophy come season end. City are having a transcendent season as Pep Guardiola’s system seems to be locking into place. United have a great goalkeeper.

Different times at City

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola. AP

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola. AP

The story of Manchester City post-2008 is essentially a story of five players. Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany, Yaya Touré, David Silva and Sergio Agüero formed the bedrock of a team which saw great success at the start of this decade. Playing along the central line, each of them at different times made their case for being the best player in the league (and sometimes the world) at their position.

However, as the years have rolled on each of them has diminished in influence. Hart has slipped out of the picture entirely, Kompany’s hamstrings/calves are about as reliable as José Mourinho at a peace mission and Touré starts only the most inconsequential matches. Silva is still the magical gliding spirit he always was, but has been supplanted by Kevin De Bruyne as the creator-in-chief.

Which leaves us with Agüeroooooo — the man who gave City their greatest moment ever. Forwards have come and gone, but none of them approached his standing as City’s foremost goal-scoring machine. In his City career, Agüero has always been a necessity for the team, and never just an option.

Except now, Guardiola, with his trouser-tearing, head-butting antics, has turned it all on its head.

The rise of Jesus

When Gabriel Jesus signed for City, he was a 19-year-old with just over a season under his belt in the Brazilian league. He was entering a setup which had chewed and spat out veterans (Wilfried Bony, Stevan Jovetić among others) with experience at the highest levels of the game. He was going to compete with a forward like Aguero who has been one of the top 10 players in the world for the better part of a decade. In short, few would have tipped him to succeed.

Guardiola, of course, had other ideas.

Three-headed attacks — think Barcelona’s MSN and Real Madrid’s BBC — are not unknown in football. However, a truly fluid three-man attack (in the mould of United’s Ronaldo-Rooney-Tevez troika) is still rare. In such an attack any of the three is equally likely to score goals. This is hard to achieve as these trios are almost always dominated by one player. So Ronaldo at Madrid is always the number one man. Similar is the case with Messi at Barcelona (which is one of the possible reasons why Neymar left).

City’s attack is special precisely because it bucks the dominant man trend. Leroy Sane, Jesus and Raheem Sterling play different positions only on paper. On the pitch they are just “forwards” who could pop up anywhere. And Jesus’ game has a lot to do in making this happen.

In the game above, notice how deep Jesus is willing to come to receive the ball. His rushing into the midfield pulls defenders with him and allows Sane and Sterling to creep up the bylines while Silva and De Bruyne get space to receive and play the ball up to the wingers. Aguero, on the other hand, is a more traditional striker who wants to play closer to the goal. This congests the field up top and leads to lesser spaces in which City can attack.

Jesus is also trickier on the wings and easily gets past multiple defenders. Aguero is... well... not exactly scintillating on the wings:

Good teams have special players, great teams have special systems

The reason why lesser teams score scorchers is because the game plan isn’t good enough for them to create a clear-cut opportunity. A great team, on the other hand, plays in a manner which allows such opportunities to pop up.

The ideal Guardiola goal includes around 8,000 passes which put the entire defence on their backside as the goalscorer taps it in from less than three feet out. The entire system with overlapping fullbacks and passing maestros is meant to ensure that the team is not relying on one special player to change the game. Jesus is ideal for such a system because of his unselfish nature and near-maniacal running. Agüero too flourishes in the system due to fantastic service but takes away from the whole due to his trigger-happy game and less-than-stellar playmaking.

The biggest proof that this system is working is that a sub-par finisher like Sterling is having the goal-scoring season of his life. It also shows from the fact that practically any midfielder playing for City has a decent chance of getting on the scoresheet. It is a system which rewards motion and intelligence more than striking technique which is why it has a better chance of giving the team sustained success.

United have plenty of reasons to feel encouraged

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho. Reuters

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho. Reuters

Despite all the great tactics and techniques, the fact remains that City just lost their first match of the season and had scares against each of West Ham, Southampton and Huddersfield in the three matches prior to that. The defence is suspect even without the question marks hovering over Kompany and Fabian Delph. A small mercy for City is that Silva is fit to play the match.

United, on the other hand, have been in cruise control with the beginnings of a three-headed attack of their own in Romelu Lukaku, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard/Marcus Rashford. Every Mourinho team is stingy in defence and this one is no exception, having allowed a league-low nine goals in 15 games. This is greatly helped by a certain David de Gea who is by far the best goalkeeper in the league.

Unfortunately, the derby might just turn on Paul Pogba’s suspension. The United midfield had a solid feel to it with Nemanja Matic sitting back while Pogba and one of Ander Herrera/Juan Mata/Henrikh Mkhitaryan playing in attacking roles. Without Pogba, Mourinho will be tempted to drag this one to a draw, perhaps with Herrera man-marking De Bruyne out of the game like he did with Eden Hazard in April.

Earlier Guardiola-Mourinho matches have followed a pattern where the latter plots to negate the former’s game plan. In Pogba’s absence that seems the likely state of play on Sunday. However, given City’s attacking talent and defensive ineptness, neither side is likely to leave with a clean sheet.

Both points and bragging rights are at stake on Sunday. It is matches like these where club legends are made. Miss this one at your own peril.

Prediction: City win 3-2 with both managers sent to the stands for getting into a shoving match.

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Updated Date: Dec 10, 2017 12:01:27 IST

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