Just a week ago it looked like this would be a defining day in the history of Manchester City: the moment they win the title by thumping their rivals on home soil. But a week is a long time in football, and following the 3-0 defeat to Liverpool on Wednesday – coupled with reports that Pep Guardiola will rest key players on Saturday – suddenly Manchester United have every chance of spoiling the party.
From a tactical perspective this is a particularly difficult game to predict. The extent to which Guardiola will rotate is unknown while United’s basic approach is also in doubt; Mourinho traditionally sits his players in a deep defensive shell, but over the last few months he has gradually begun to play more expansive football against the big sides. Both approaches have their merits against a weakened City.
Here are five key tactical questions ahead of the Manchester derby:
1) Will Mourinho lay down a marker for 2018/19 with a confrontational approach?
Liverpool’s resounding win at Anfield in midweek was further evidence that a high-pressing and confrontational approach is the best way to hurt a Guardiola team. We can now say, with absolute confidence, that to back off City is to invite pressure and allow them to define the shape of the game. Get in their faces with a bold attacking mantra and those choreographed moves can fall apart.
Mourinho has a reputation for parking the bus in big matches, but he is gradually beginning to play more expansively as the cries of dissent grow louder. United fans can have no complaints with the performances in recent home wins against Chelsea and Liverpool.
Of course, playing away from Old Trafford makes it likely we will see Mourinho reverting to type, not least because he’ll take inspiration from Liverpool’s resolute defending in the second half against City. Mourinho will almost certainly play three in the middle, meaning – unlike Liverpool – they will struggle for fluency.
But this game is about more than just the result. United’s performance on Saturday is of huge symbolic significance. Mourinho needs to show he is adaptable, progressive, and able to challenge City’s supremacy in 2018/19.
Is Mourinho observing and learning from Klopp on how to handle Man City?
— Umar-Farouk Atipaga (@FAROUKATIPAGA) April 4, 2018
2) After the Liverpool debacle, will squad rotation create new flaws in the City system?
Guardiola made some glaring tactical errors in midweek. Ilkay Gundogan looked completely lost on the right, allowing Andrew Robertson to dominate the left flank where Sterling could have pinned the Scotsman back. And without De Bruyne between the lines City struggled to find that crucial threaded pass into the half-spaces, looking flat in possession and incapable of passing through the Liverpool midfield.
The problem area in Manchester City's midfield is Gundogan.
Can't remember a game where he had a 10/10 without having to score or assist.
Too easily dispossessed,heavy on his feet and can hardly link play up.
Forcing him in there has been Guardiola's biggest mistake.
— ™ (@Tacticomotion_) April 5, 2018
This tactical inertia is testament to the intricacy of Guardiola’s positional coaching; move one element and the house of cards collapses. Consequently there should be gaps in the City team for United to exploit, although we won’t know exactly where until the team sheet is released.
Mourinho’s men will need to react quickly in-game, adapting their tactical approach without managerial input if they are to take full advantage.
3) Can Gundogan find gaps in a three-man United midfield?
Guardiola will rest at least one of Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva, which piles pressure onto Gundogan to control the tempo of the game from the base of midfield. The Germany international was terrible at Anfield but in a more familiar central position on Saturday he can pull the strings for the hosts.
With Scott McTominay or Marouane Fellaini alongside Nemanja Matic, United will pack the middle with bodies to cut off the passing lanes into central attacking midfield, something Mourinho arguably does better than any other coach in the world. To penetrate the midfield will require patience, intelligence and crisp passing from Gundogan, particularly since City won’t be able to rely on width or pace as much as usual.
Leroy Sane and Kyle Walker could both miss out. Sterling only played for half an hour at Anfield so should get the nod and Bernardo Silva usually starts when Guardiola is resting star players (meaning Sane can drop to the bench), while Danilo also tends to come in for matches deemed less important (such as against Shakhtar Donetsk, Wigan and Basel).
With only Sterling available to hug the touchline, United’s defensive blockade can stay narrow and squeeze the space. Gundogan has his work cut out.
4) Can Rashford and Sanchez cause damage behind City’s problem full-backs?
City’s main vulnerability is in the full-back positions. On the right, Danilo always looks a bit dodgy and isn’t likely to receive enough support from Bernardo Silva, while the left has been a problem area all season for Guardiola – although Fabian Delph should get a start on Saturday.
Marcus Rashford has proved to be an excellent counter-attacking weapon from the left recently, combining with Romelu Lukaku to good effect against Liverpool. This might seem like a relatively simple tactical point to make, but United’s approach to big games does tend to be route one. It is certainly possible that Rashford can get on the inside of Danilo and outpace him.
Also shows that they are beatable with Pace. They aren't coping with the pace of Salah, Mane, Firmino and Ox. Play Rashford and Lingard Sanchez and get on Martial and Mata when they are demolished
— Supermanunited (@Supermanunited7) April 4, 2018
Sanchez, likely to be shifted to the right to accommodate a three-man midfield, is finally beginning to look like his old self, scoring one and assisting another against Swansea City last weekend. He might expose Delph’s tendency to stay too narrow to the left-sided centre-back.
Whichever way round United’s wingers line up, there is a real opportunity at the Etihad to put City’s inexperienced full-backs under pressure.
5) Can Bernardo Silva get the better of Young as he cuts inside?
Assuming City will struggle for creative fluency, they might just rely on a bit of magic from Bernardo Silva. It’s been a low-key start to life in England for the Portuguese, although the 23-year-old has quietly amassed six goals and eight assists since mid-December – at a rate of one every 110 minutes. The pick of the goals was the opener in a 3-0 league win against Arsenal, when Silva cut inside from the right and bent the ball into the far corner.
This is the sort of individual moment of brilliance City might need to get past such a stubborn defence. Ashley Young has been excellent at left-back this season but he is still capable of getting caught out positionally, particularly when facing wingers who like to cut inside. Young tends to back off too far, allowing the likes of Silva to drop the shoulder and make space for a shot.