Derby postmortem: Manchester United and its manager Erik Ten Hag get a reality check

Manchester United manager Erik Ten Hag tasted his first real 90 minutes of Premier League football – the kind of football that can leave one dizzy, the kind that can make one question their life choices. It was to be a test of his team selection, his tactics and most importantly, his ability to judge where his team was on a scale that continues to be topped by Manchester City. It would be a test that he failed spectacularly at.

Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City didn’t just beat United – they toyed with them, they relentlessly chased them, then caught them and then gobbled them up for a light afternoon tea. It was exhilarating football for the casual viewer and stone-faced silence for anyone with a United jersey.

The game was a demonstration. On one hand you had United, who only recently announced that they’ve incurred a 115 million pound loss in the 2021-22 season, while simultaneously spending 90 million pounds on a Brazilian winger who jotted together a grand total of 12 goals and assists in the Eredivisie, easily one of the weaker leagues in Europe.

Manchester United’s head coach Erik ten Hag shouts during the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester City and Manchester United at Etihad stadium in Manchester, England, Sunday, Oct. 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Rui Vieira)

On the other hand you have Man City, backed by the City Football Group – a global conglomerate operating out of Abu Dhabi, that is built on the premise that if the best manager in the world is given the best coaching and scouting staff while operating out of training facilities that are unrivalled, then the results of those investments could very well topple even a club like Manchester United.

“All the credit to City, but it’s nothing to do with City, our performance was not good. It had to do with the belief as individuals and as a team. It’s quite simple, it’s a lack of belief. When you don’t believe on the pitch then you can’t win games, that is unacceptable. We get undisciplined at following rules and you get hammered, that’s what happened today,” said Ten Hag to BBC after the game on Sunday.

This has been the Ten Hag message all along. Era’s end. Football needs to be played a certain way, no matter what the situation.

Manchester City Manchester City’s Phil Foden, left, challenges for the ball with Manchester United’s Jadon Sancho during the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester City and Manchester United at Etihad stadium in Manchester, England, Sunday, Oct. 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Rui Vieira)

But pragmatism dictates that at 4-0 down within 43 minutes, the ideal move should be to call your full-backs, both of whom were already on yellow cards, to play in their half of the pitch, rather than in the City half. This would have been especially prudent considering the deadly pressing of the Citizens that choked the full backs from making any gains. It was what former manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer did when he would visit the Etihad, which made him the only Manchester United manager to win his opening Manchester derby since the second World War.

Ten Hag eventually got it right, realising in the second half that his players were reducing their width to defend against every Blue raid that hammered their way but then operating at that same width when taking possession of the ball. Luke Shaw was quickly introduced in the second half and suddenly United had a lot more wide areas to pull City’s defenders into, which created further space in the middle. But at 4-0 down, scoring three and conceding two in the second half was a consolation prize that never should have been.

Judging by the form of this City team, in particular its striker Erling Haaland and winger Phil Foden, logic would dictate that United should have played all out for a draw or atleast a game where prioritising defensive position was far more crucial. They instead played a far more open game than what they would usually in this situation and conceded goal after goal.

In part, these goals weren’t Manchester United’s fault. At least two of the six goals are trademark City attacks – almost engraved into the minds of every one of Pep’s players. The first, a simple Kevin de Bruyne inside-curving through ball, weighted perfectly in the no-man’s land that is David de Gea’s goal and his last defensive man. It’s a ball that allows the striker to run up into that space and then all that’s left is the finish and who better than Haaland to deliver the goods. At the brink of last season, the same attacking pattern, with De Bruyne the provider and Ilkay Gundogan, the finisher, was the goal that won City the EPL.

But the attack that’s been a real hallmark of Pep’s run at Man City though is a lot more subtle. It involves the ball being moved onto the left wing and rather than an angled pass, or a weighted delivery, the player, be it Bernardo Silva or Sergio Gomes, goes for power. And with that power he goes for a pass to an attacker that’s directly perpendicular to him.

The attacker is always present and the defence is usually a step ahead. How is this? Simply, when the attacker is rushing into the box he is a step or two ahead of the player on the wing carrying the ball into the final third of the pitch. The defensive line stays with the attacker, who at the last moment stops his run and allows his marker to continue forward, while staying open for his teammate out on the right to drop a pin-point bullet that now just needs guidance into De Gea’s fortress. Two of City’s goals on Sunday came this way and Manchester United’s back line fell for it on both occasions.

These are attacking moves that have their home at the training ground practice sessions where they’ve been perfected. Their implementation, usually at a moment when City have been applying the choke on their hapless opponents. A world class manager training a group of world class players in training conditions unrivalled to create attacking patterns that are near unguardable

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