City need more discipline when they haven’t got the ball or they will struggle in derby


Manchester City’s inability to adapt to a losing situation away from home is incredible and hasn’t shown any sign of improving. They have never recovered from a half-time losing situation on their travels under Manuel Pellegrini. That’s a shocking statistic. Half-time is the occasion when you see what a manager has got and how good he actually is.

He will need to show a lot more pragmatism and flexibility in this weekend’s Manchester derby or it could end badly for City. We’ve talked here before about the way that City allow both of their full-backs to go upfield at the same time and can also lack the discipline of leaving a midfielder back, causing the centre-halves to be exposed. On the ball City are fine. It’s when they are out of possession – and need some discipline – that these fatal flaws reveal themselves. Those flaws could be amplified this weekend by the fact that United have found a very definite way to succeed, by making very specific tactical use of Marouane Fellaini.

The Belgian has been a massive element in the way that Louis van Gaal has finally found a successful system. Watch his positioning carefully on Sunday and you will see that for the first 25 or 30 minutes he will go right up at the top of the team – as high as, or even higher than, Wayne Rooney – to stretch the opposition, force their defence back and create room and time for the players who are operating behind him. Look at United’s winning games against Aston Villa and Liverpool and you’ll see exactly what an effect Fellaini had, creating space for his team-mates.

It was no surprise that Juan Mata and Ander Herrera scored twice in those games, using the extra time generated for them on the ball. When Fellaini has had the desired effect, putting defenders six yards further back, he’s then been reverting to a deeper-lying role of his own. There’s an adage for this strategy in football: “You’ve got to go long to come short.”

United are going to feel very confident about picking up the balls that Fellaini’s aerial presence can create for them if City’s full-backs have put themselves out of the occasion by going up together, in the way that they do. That’s why I predict that the Manchester derby will be all about the battle to win the second ball.

When Vincent Kompany and Fellaini go up for a ball, there is a very good chance that it will be bouncing 20 or 25 yards from goal. If Herrera or Mata pick up that second ball there will be a very real threat for City, because those players will be within shooting distance. If the ball falls to whoever City have in the defensive midfield roles – perhaps Fernando or Fernandinho – then it will be critical that they deal with it precisely and effectively. Too often we have seen those players ball-watching, or taking up the wrong positions, allowing gaping spaces to open up. This weekend, they are going to have such important roles.

If City can reveal the rigour and discipline to deal with this situation, then they can create the opportunity to make something out of the game for themselves. Psychologically, they know very well what beating United feels like now and I don’t believe for a minute that the conjecture about Pellegrini’s future created by Monday’s defeat to Crystal Palace will affect them. Players react far less than you might think to an abundance of headlines like that. But it is time to show proper tactical application rather than this blasé assumption that they will play the City way, whoever they are up against.


Danny Higginbotham’s autobiography, ‘Rise of the Underdog’, published by Trinity Mirror Sport, is out now  (Trinity Mirror Sport Media. RRP £16.99)


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