Analysing Jose Mourinho’s tactical options before the Manchester Derby


United v City. José v Pep. Manchester derbies are always a spectacle to look forward to but there’s no doubt that excitement has increased ten-fold due to the arrival of the new managers to both halves of the city. Both managers will be looking to gain an early upper hand on each other in both the title race and for bragging rights.

After years and years of the red half of Manchester looking down on the blue half, City have gone from being the poor relatives to “noisy neighbours” to becoming the more dominant force. City have finished above United in all three seasons since Sir Alex Ferguson has vacated the Old Trafford dugout but under José Mourinho the red half of Manchester will believe this is the perfect opportunity to show who is top dog.

This article will look at the tactics Mourinho may deploy both with and without the ball in order to get one over his arch-rival.

Without the ball: Defend deep and close down the spaces

Although only three games in, selection from both José and Pep has been pretty consistent. City have lined up in Guardiola’s preferred 4-3-3 shape with Fernandinho at the base of the midfield, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne providing the creativity through the middle, Raheem Sterling and Nolito providing pace out wide and Sergio Aguero providing the firepower upfront. With Aguero banned from the derby, City will be enforced into a change. Whether they go for a like for like replacement in Kelechi Iheanacho or tweak the system and play a false 9 remains to be seen.

As for United, they’ve been been set up in Mourinho’s favoured 4-2-3-1 formation so far with Marouane Fellaini and Paul Pogba sitting behind Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney and Anthony Martial with Zlatan Ibrahimovic as the lead man. So far this system has resulted in three wins from three with only one goal conceded. They say don’t change a winning side but it wouldn’t be a surprise is Mourinho tinkered with his system especially for this crunch game.

The reason as to why Mourinho may do this is because of one Mourinho v Guardiola showdown in particular. José has a really poor record against Pep – the Portuguese man has won just 3 of 17 clashes against the Spaniard in his career. However a tactical reshuffle before the 2011 Copa del Rey final gave Mourinho the victory on that evening in the Mestalla stadium in Valencia. Mourinho shifted from his usual 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-2-1 with Sami Khedira, Xabi Alonso and Pepe, usually a centre back, playing in midfield. Mesut Özil moved from his usual number 10 position to the right hand side of midfield, with Angel Di Maria on the left and Cristiano Ronaldo through the middle. Karim Benzema, Mourinho’s usual number 9, was the man sacrificed. Playing the three in the middle nullified the space for Xavi and Iniesta to pass the ball and also closed the space in which Messi, who was playing as a false 9, had to influence the game.

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Although the players are different, Guardiola’s philosophy remains the same. So to stop City playing United could be best with three in the middle rather than their usual two. If Mourinho decided to adopt his 2011 Copa del Rey final tactics, then he’s certainly not short on options. It’s likely Fellaini and Pogba would be in the team anyway. Alongside those United could bring in Morgan Schneiderlin, they could bring in Chris Smalling and push Daley Blind into midfield or potentially drop Wayne Rooney into a position similar to how he was used by Louis van Gaal. A midfield trio would stop Silva and De Bruyne from dictating proceedings and it would also close down any space if Nolito and Sterling were to come inside. Flooding that central area would also limit any space for a false 9 to come deep, just as Pepe, Alonso and Khedira were able to do when Messi was played that role in that game at the Mestalla in April 2011.

With the ball: Go wide and hit Ibrahimovic

In the aforementioned 2011 Copa del Rey final, Real created chances by going wide. They had Ozil and Di Maria and wide positions getting crosses into the box for Ronaldo and the winner came from a peach of a cross by the Argentinian to the former United man to nod home in extra time.

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United have got players capable of playing the same way with Mata and Martial on either flank provide different problems for City’s full backs. The Spaniard has the trickery and the technical ability and the Frenchman has the pace and dribbling ability to cause serious problems. The Reds also have terrific full backs in Antonio Valencia and Luke Shaw who have started the season extremely well and, although at the time of writing both are fitness doubts for the game, will provide natural width to help stretch the play.

However Mourinho’s main weapon comes in the shape of their 6 foot 4 Swedish centre forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic. With City expecting to keep hold of the ball and wanting dominate possession, United have got the perfect foil in Ibrahimovic. Zlatan is the perfect “out-ball” in which United can hit in order to relieve the pressure. He can hold the ball up and he can bring Mata, Martial and Rooney into play. He is also bigger than the two centre backs City are likely to use on Saturday, John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi, and has the potential to bully the pair of them. I would back Ibrahimovic in a physical battle against both of those all day long. If United can get crosses into the box they could cause City real problems – just as Ronaldo did five years ago.

Defence the best form of attack

Don’t get me wrong although this appears defensive looks like a tactic to prevent City from winning, preventing Guardiola’s teams from playing is exactly the way to beat them. It’s rare that teams beat Pep’s sides by dominating the game. If United are going to win they will in a very tight game and with Ibrahimovic, Martial, Rooney, Mata and Rashford all likely to feature at some point during the game, they’ve certainly got the firepower to cause them major problems.

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