Jose Mourinho parks the bus at Man City as United grind out derby draw
Jose Mourinho played for a 0-0 draw and got it as Manchester United repelled an uninspired Manchester City side at the Etihad on Thursday night.
The visitors threatened on the break in the first half through Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, though their most impressive features centred on their defending. Set out in a 4-3-3, their midfield trio screened the backline well and blunted City's passing game.
It helped United that the only danger between the lines was Kevin De Bruyne, with David Silva out injured. With their midfielders marked out of the first half, City had more luck playing direct passes to Sergio Aguero, who troubled his markers and linked up well.
In the second half, United played far deeper and offered next to nothing, but City were unable to tear down their defensive wall. That enabled the visitors to make it 24 matches unbeaten, a run in which few of their games have been as forgettable as this one.
Diligent midfield disrupts City
The big games at the Etihad have offered some thrilling tactical battles this season, but here even the formations prompted yawns. Pep Guardiola chose a 4-2-3-1 with Yaya Toure and Fernandinho behind De Bruyne, while Mourinho picked a 4-3-3 that facilitated man-marking in midfield. That gave neither side free men in dangerous zones.
The set-up certainly made City more predictable than earlier in the season, when Silva and De Bruyne both operated as attacking playmakers. Here only De Bruyne did so, so Mourinho told anchorman Michael Carrick to pick up his runs beyond the backline and down the channels. Just ahead, Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini watched Toure and Fernandinho.
The trio's discipline was impressive. When the City centre-backs looked for players in advanced positions, United screened the space in front of the City midfielders, passing each other instructions as their rivals roamed and exchanged places. When the passes were released, United were often in a position to intercept. This showed in the passing of Nicolas Otamendi, the left-sided centre-back, who completed few of his forward deliveries in the first half.
Only on one occasion did United let De Bruyne go, and they were nearly punished for it, as his low cross was steered into the post by Aguero. Beyond that, City's key player struggled to get involved, receiving only 19 passes in the opening half.
Aguero offers direct option
With the midfield jammed, City were sometimes better off bypassing it altogether. They looked directly for Aguero, who positioned himself on the right near Daley Blind, instead of the more athletic Eric Bailly. As the graphic shows, Aguero received six passes straight from the nearest centre-back, Vincent Kompany, in the first half.
His productivity varied. Some heavy touches let him down, but his link-up play was good, such as when a slick one-two released Raheem Sterling, who fired well over.
Aguero also got chances to run at Blind. At one point, he got a low pass from Sterling and turned his marker, before firing over from good position. There were also times when he dropped off and got a shot in, although these were either saved or blocked. Almost all of these incidents took place towards the right, where United duly committed most of their first half tackles.
United waste counterattacks
United had their chances too, at least in the first half. With Zlatan Ibrahimovic injured, Rashford, Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan played up front, and exchanged positions at the start.
Mkhitaryan enjoyed a brief spell as a False No.9. That put Rashford on the right and, inside two minutes, the 19-year-old had sprinted down the flank, then passed back to Herrera, who whipped in a dangerous cross that forced Pablo Zabaleta to concede a corner.
Before long Rashford had swapped positions with Mkhitaryan. The plan was clear: win the ball in midfield and put Rashford through on goal. Failing that, release him down the flanks, where he can take on Otamendi and Kompany.
There were some promising situations. In one duel, Rashford hared past Otamendi and won a corner. In another, he bamboozled him with a spectacular flick, only for Kompany to intervene. Yet that was all it came to, and Mourinho, who missed the injured Paul Pogba, will surely have rued the number of counterattacks United squandered through misunderstandings, poor timing or imprecision.
"In the first half, I could feel we were always dangerous, [albeit] not with big occasions," Mourinho said. "We had a couple of movements that could have been the start of something important."
But they turned out not to be and instead their biggest chance from open play came when Martial skipped past Kompany and produced a cross that Claudio Bravo flapped to Mkhitaryan, who fired straight back at Bravo. Herrera also went close from a Rashford free-kick just before half-time. That was as good as it got for United.
City crash into parked bus
That said, attacking was never the priority for Mourinho anyway. United sank deeper in the second half and showed almost no ambition, their only effort being a blocked Herrera shot. As City completed 117 passes in the final third, United managed just seven.
This invited City closer to the box, which broke down a lot of the midfield structure United had benefited from in the first half. Rather than struggling to get the ball in advanced positions, De Bruyne could now receive it freely down the flanks in decent areas. On 58 minutes, he used that advantage to go past Herrera and fire into the side netting.
Yet United kept their concentration and conceded few clear-cut chances. Beyond an Otamendi header from a corner and an Aguero shot blasted off target, little happened until second-half substitute Gabriel Jesus flicked home a stoppage-time goal that was disallowed for offside. By that stage Fellaini had been sent off for butting Aguero, forcing Mourinho to go 4-5-0.
Aguero could also have done better with a deep De Bruyne cross late on, but all in all it was tame stuff from City, and Guardiola will surely have been disappointed at their lack of invention.
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