Manchester City's familiar failings as resolute United take advantage
Manchester United took advantage of Manchester City's two most recurring defensive errors to net the only goal at the Etihad on Sunday, which sealed their second win on the road in nine league games and consigned City to a fourth defeat in six league fixtures.
For Manuel Pellegrini, it proved a Groundhog Day of sorts. On several occasions in the first half, and not for the first time this season, Yaya Toure and Fernandinho ceded gaps in front of the defence that United exploited, such as when Juan Mata found Marcus Rashford for the goal.
Rashford's movement stretched City throughout, and early in the second half Pellegrini took out the hapless Martin Demichelis for Wilfried Bony to go to a 4-4-2 with Fernandinho in the centre of defence. The tweak moved David Silva into a more central playmaking role as they pushed for an equaliser, but United defended sturdily and while many shots were fired, only a few were dangerous.
With Sergio Aguero misfiring and Bony sluggish, Pellegrini was left to contemplate a third successive game without a goal and a league table in which the much-questioned Louis van Gaal now sits one point behind in the fight for a Champions League spot.
Positional errors cost City again
The nature of City's downfall was pretty predictable. Pellegrini once more used a 4-2-3-1 with Toure and Fernandinho in central midfield behind Silva, Raheem Sterling and Jesus Navas. United had a more natural holding duo in Morgan Schneiderlin and Michael Carrick behind Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard and Mata.
In truth, both Toure and Fernandinho had spells in which they held their positions diligently, but at other times they closed down players far into the opposition half to leave their defence unprotected. Only within a few minutes, Fernandinho conceded a foul for a challenge on Carrick near the United penalty box.
The situation looked even more ominous when Mata drifted inside from the right and, on 16 minutes, disaster struck: Mata played a one-two with Schneiderlin to bypass Fernandinho and, with Toure caught far upfield, the Spaniard was allowed to run at the defence and find Rashford who dribbled past Demichelis to score.
Rather than fixing the problem, City committed the same error a minute later. Toure and Fernandinho pressed Schneiderlin and Carrick high up the pitch, yet Silva marked nobody, leaving United in a three-vs-two situation. That allowed them to release Lingard into a huge gap in midfield, which led to Martial firing a dangerous shot at Joe Hart.
Later in the half, Fernandinho could be seen fouling Lingard 70 yards up the pitch. So far into the season, the issue appears all but incorrigible under Pellegrini.
Roaming Rashford troubles Demichelis
United also benefited from Rashford's movement. The 18-year-old kept drifting wide to draw out centre-backs Demichelis and Eliaquim Mangala, who both looked uncomfortable; at one point he won a corner off Mangala on the right, before striking a fine low cross that nobody met.
Particularly, Demichelis was put to the sword often and while the 35-year-old won most of his challenges, the one he lost led to the goal. The Argentine was also fortunate not to concede a penalty when he brought down Rashford just before half-time.
As United sat deeper in the second period, Rashford kept providing an outlet on the counter. A swift run to draw out Mangala 30 seconds into the half hinted at things to come, and by the 53rd minute Demichelis had looked so shaky that Pellegrini took him off.
Few further chances fell Rashford's way beyond a low cross that he nearly converted, but he kept going and managed to win a corner six minutes into stoppage time despite having suffered from cramp. No wonder Van Gaal was pleased.
Silva threatens in central role
City were not as effective in exploiting weak links. Most of their play in the opening period went through Navas on the right, but the chances they created were missed: Navas himself hooked a left-footed volley wide and smacked a low shot straight at David De Gea, while Demichelis headed a Silva free-kick just wide.
At times there was a lack of movement beyond a few simple passes over the top for Aguero that were cut out with ease, and the creativity diminished when Fernando replaced the injured Sterling after 26 minutes.
The pressure only increased when Pellegrini put on Bony for Demichelis to deploy a 4-4-2 system in which Fernandinho became a makeshift centre-back and Silva drifted across from the left to dictate the play centrally. That meant City essentially played without a left winger, so even more attacks were channelled through Navas.
One of the biggest chances came when Toure's cross from the right was headed into the near post by Aguero, and on 71 minutes Silva popped up on the right to loft in a pass that Aguero headed across goal, only for Toure to set up Bony for a blocked shot.
A minute into stoppage time, Silva lifted another diagonal towards Aguero, who chested it down before hammering it agonisingly wide. By full-time Silva had completed more passes than anyone on the pitch (52 out of 57 attempted) and, while he has played better games for City, he had been the inventor of the most promising moves.
Dogged United quell City
Credit should go to United for limiting Silva's influence. They fell back in the second half and clearly felt the exertions from the tie against Liverpool on Thursday night, with several players suffering from cramp.
It helped that Van Gaal fortified midfield by introducing Bastian Schweinsteiger for Mata, and Carrick played a key role in shielding the defence. United also shifted players across to stop City's raids through Navas and committed a series of tackles down that side.
By the end, City had managed 26 shots but only three on target. That, alongside familiar defensive failings, proved costly.