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Monday, December 6, 2021

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‘Peaceful destruction’ and the ‘ball in the fridge’: How Manchester United were taken apart

Manchester City did not just beat Manchester United on Saturday lunchtime: they were killed, with death inflicted not by a single blow but by suffocation.

City punished United’s defensive mistakes in the first half, seizing on their confusion and vulnerability to take a two-goal lead at half time. And then in the second they simply toyed with them – pass and move, pass and move, pulling United from one side of the pitch to the other.

So, how did the victory break down?

With the ball – patient possession This was not the full-frontal assault of Liverpool’s 5-0 win at the same ground a fortnight earlier: instead, it was – as Gary Neville put it – “peaceful destruction”, a very calm and patient thrashing.

Tactically, City were operating on a different plane to their rivals. Their players kept popping up in pockets of space. Every time there was a pass on, it was to someone who seemed to know where they were going to send the ball before they had even received it. 

One of the benefits of playing with a false nine is anyone can masquerade as a centre forward. Nominally that was Kevin De Bruyne, but Phil Foden, Gabriel Jesus and Bernardo Silva all took turns playing as the central striker. United played with three centre-backs but none seemed entirely confident when it came to knowing which City player they should mark. And with Joao Cancelo imperious as a rampaging full-back, charging through Manchester United’s five-man midfield, the waves of attacks just kept on coming.

When asked what had gone so well for his side, Phil Foden was in no doubt. “Possession – and when to hurt them, when to get in behind” he said. “We knew we could exploit the space in behind but it was about choosing the moment to do that. That’s what was so pleasing.”

Guardiola, not for the first time, came up with a neat term for City’s controlled brutality – keeping the “ball in the fridge”.

“We have played good performances at Old Trafford in general since we have been together,” he said. “We won many times, much more than at any other stadium. It was a solid performance and a deserved victory.

“We spoke about them being a transition team and we had to put the ball in the fridge. A lot of passes and, in the last moment, we arrive [in space] in that situation. It was really good. It looks like the players are moving but we are moving the ball.

“Everybody has to be in position. The ball comes where we are. We had a lot of control and we did not let them run. This is the game we needed.” 

It was precisely the game United did not. For the second time in succession at home, they had been out-passed and outclassed by one of their biggest rivals. 

Without the ball – relentless pressing But there was another side to City’s masterclass – namely, that whenever a United player got the ball at their feet, they barely had time to control it, let alone get their heads up to pick out a forward pass. It went backwards more often than not.

Such was the speed with which they were engulfed by those in sky blue, it was impossible to play in transition. United should have gone more direct, tried to play over the press, but they were not nimble enough tactically or astute enough in the dugout to make the change in game.

City hunted in packs, two, three, sometimes even four players surrounding their opponents inside their own half. United hoped to play on the counter-attack but simply could not mount them, the threat cut off at source, which normally meant winning the ball back in midfield.

“Myself and Gabby were told to go high and press the full-backs – it’s obviously more difficult when you’re playing a side with five at the back but the pressing worked,” Foden added.

The difference in energy was reflected in the number of sprints completed by each side: City’s top four players made 68 between them, whereas United’s top four managed just 41.

The champion mentality It was also a triumph for mentality. City were confident and clinical. United looked nervous and anxious; harassed and hurried.

That is why they made mistakes, Eric Bailly putting the ball into his own net because nobody, not right-back Aaron Wan Bissaka or the leisurely retreating Bruno Fernandes, got close enough to stop Cancelo’s cross and he panicked because of the accuracy of the delivery.

And after a string of impressive saves from David de Gea, the United goalkeeper dallied, Luke Shaw failed to realise Silva was behind him and he guided another Cancelo cross inside the far post.

The lead looked insurmountable even then, but it was what City did in the second half that really caused the pain, passing the ball around in triangles, moving backwards and forwards, always a split second before a United player could get close enough to take it off them. 

It was easy, a keep-ball exercise that conserved energy while draining United of theirs. It was a performance that did not only beat United, it broke their spirit in front of their desolated and increasingly disgruntled fans.

City made 821 passes in the game compared to 329. Statistics can be misleading but these are not – they are damning. United surrendered peacefully because they simply did not have the weapons or the mentality to make it a proper fight.

With a two-goal lead, they did not look to score a hatful as Liverpool had done here a few weeks earlier. They just took the ball off United for such long periods of time that they were able to preserve the lead rather than worry too much about extending it – Guardiola did not even feel the need to bring on any substitutes.

He knew his was the better team – and he made sure everyone watching knew it.

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