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Manchester United vs Manchester City: How Erik ten Hag can win the tactical battle

by David O'Neill

Manchester United take on Manchester City on Sunday with a view to extending their Premier League winning streak to five games.

This will be a huge showdown between Erik ten Hag and Pep Guardiola, the pair having worked together at FC Bayern Munich. With both coaches credited with top-class tactical acumen it is sure to make for an intriguing battle.

City are expected to play a 4-3-3, with Guardiola unlikely to veer from his ideals too much in the encounter.

Their recent match against Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League group stages underlined some difficulties they may face in breaking down an organised defensive unit.

Until the 80th minute strike from unlikely goalscorer John Stones, the Sky Blues had failed to register a shot on target against a disciplined Dortmund side.

A lot of that came down to the profile of Guardiola’s wide players. In starting with both Riyad Mahrez and Jack Grealish on the flanks, City had little threat in behind.

While both good dribblers who excel in one-on-one situations, Dortmund’s denial of such opportunities with a tight block made them ineffective in creating goalscoring chances for Erling Haaland, who was well-marshalled by Niklas Sule and Mats Hummels.

As outlined by Ahmed Walid of The Athletic, both wingers (and Bernardo Silva when he lines up wide) seem to always want the ball to feet and have little desire to ‘attack the space.’

Despite Dortmund’s loss, the Red Devils can take a lesson from their defensive performance should they be met with a similar combination.

That matter could be complicated should Guardiola opt for Phil Foden. The Englishman is more of a ‘box crasher,’ happy to go in behind and attack the box directly.

With five substitutes available to managers this season, United can expect to have to deal with Foden at some stage regardless of the starting line-up. Understanding the defensive requirements in dealing with his specific skillset as well of those of his teammates will be key in limiting City’s ability to create chances for their central striker.

After all, it is easier to stop the ball getting to Haaland than it is to deal with him once he has it, given he rarely needs many touches to score.

It is also worth noting that Dortmund’s concessions came after switching to a 5-3-2 late in the game, with Nico Schlotterback slotting in at the back. This seemed to cost the Bundesliga side the organisation that had served them so well for the majority of the match.

A test of nerve could be on the menu for Ten Hag should United end up in a similar position late on, particularly as it is generally preferable to defend against City in the midfield where their runners are than it is to sling on more centre-backs.

As for Manchester United’s setup, Ten Hag has usually shown a preference for a man-oriented press in midfield, often opting to match up his triangle against the opponent’s.

Given City typically use Rodri as a single pivot with two midfielders ahead of him, United are likely to do the reverse, with Eriksen partnered by either in-form Scott McTominay or new signing Casemiro as a double pivot, with Bruno Fernandes ahead of them.

That would allow United to put pressure on City’s midfield more directly, while still retaining the creative capabilities of Fernandes and Eriksen – both of whom will be depended upon for their passing skills in setting up counter attacks.

Those two will be heavily relied upon by United’s front three of Marcus Rashford, Antony, and Jadon Sancho. The Red Devils’ attacking trio have the speed and skill to trouble City, but good supply will be vital.

As Ten Hag demonstrated against Liverpool in United’s 2-1 win at Old Trafford, he is happy to play a more pragmatic game when necessity dictates as much, but his blueprint of quick combination play and fluid movement is always an expectation.

Fluidity key against City

Throughout the game Man United will need to press in a 4-2-3-1 shape, drop into two banks of fours should the initial press fail, and spring into their preferred 4-3-3 offensive shape when the attack is on.

That will require discipline and direction, but United have form for an upset and, while this match against City will be a greater challenge than Jurgen Klopp’s visit was, Ten Hag has the tools to cause Guardiola problems at the Etihad.

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