The odds are stacked heavily in Manchester City’s favour ahead of this Sunday’s derby at Old Trafford, yet the form guide and recent meetings suggest this will be a much tighter game than the bookies anticipate.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has a habit of getting his players fired up for games like these, while Pep Guardiola tends to overthink things. Predicting the tactical battle and the outcome for this one depends on which Manchester derby from this season you focus on. Both clubs have frequently switched formation and personnel; both clubs have produced brilliant performances. It could go either way.
Here are five tactical questions ahead of Man Utd v Man City:
1) Will City again lack the width to break through United’s defence?
We’ve seen Guardiola play the Norwegian enough times to know that the pattern of this match will be City possession and United counters, with the hosts managing to assert some territorial dominance of their own only if City play the badge and not the players. But when the two sides last met in the league in December, ending in a 2-1 win for United, Man City were surprisingly poor at breaking down the stubbornly deep defensive shell deployed by Solskjaer.
Guardiola’s main problem was a lack of penetrating width, with Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka comfortably keeping Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling quiet.
Without Leroy Sane, with Sterling out of form, and with Benjamin Mendy looking increasingly unlikely to ever come good in a City shirt, their left flank is significantly weakened. This is the area City most often target as a way to break down solid defensive blockades. They drag the game over to the right, then suddenly switch the play and look to slide the left winger in behind. The ease with which United have held them at arm’s length this season – twice keeping clean sheets – suggests Wan-Bissaka can once again hold firm.
2) Or will Guardiola bring back the striker-less 4-4-2 to overwhelm the hosts?
Then again, Guardiola’s problems against Man Utd led him to deploy an unusual striker-less 4-4-2 formation the last time City went to Old Trafford, winning 3-1 in the League Cup semi-final first leg. That system – last seen beating Real Madrid 2-1 at the Bernabeu – could be used again on Sunday to overwhelm the Man Utd midfield and pull their defence into all sorts of uncomfortable positions.
The Man Utd centre-backs had no idea what to do without strikers to mark, hesitating badly as a flurry of City bodies sprinted towards them, and indeed the main advantage of the system proved to be diminishing the value of strength and increasing those of movement and pace.
It meant little that Victor Lindelof and Phil Jones could outmuscle City’s lithe attackers since they couldn’t get tight to anyone, whereas their sluggishness on the turn allowed the likes of Riyad Mahrez to make late runs in behind the defence – as he did to score City’s second.
What’s more, having four central midfielders during periods of possession left United badly outnumbered in the middle, leading to a chaotic scramble for defensive cover. Guardiola’s best chance on Sunday is to bring the formation back.
3) Does upgrading Lingard to Fernandes increase United’s chances?
It’s never wise to bank on Guardiola doing the obvious, mind, and in fact for the second leg he went for a maddening and ineffective 3-4-1-2. Should City return to something more conventional, then Man Utd’s biggest asset will be Bruno Fernandes – a notable upgrade on Jesse Lingard, who played a crucial role along with Fred in a dominant first-half display when the sides met in December.
Fernandinho will once again be in central defence, meaning the Man City midfield should be left exposed to counter-attacks as long as United can evade the first wave of the counter-press. That’s precisely what they did at the Etihad in the league, with Fred’s agility in possession – wriggling expertly away from danger – and Lingard’s weaving movement in the number ten space outmanoeuvring Guardiola’s side.
Fernandes has enjoyed a very good start to his United career. His ability to seek out little pockets of space between the lines is already making the team’s possession more assertive, and more vertical; he could be the most important player on the pitch this weekend.
4) Can Martial replace Rashford and beat Walker?
Should United successfully side-step the City press the pitch will open up dramatically, and not just because without Fernandinho, Rodri and Ikay Gundogan are too flat to stamp out danger. A knock-on effect of their midfield issues sees Kyle Walker play an inverted role at right-back, tucking into the middle to help out during sustained periods of City pressure.
Ordinarily it’s Marcus Rashford who would make the most of this, peeling out to the left flank to get a good ten-yard head start on Walker before his England teammate can scramble back out wide. However, Rashford’s injury means this task will be up to Anthony Martial, scorer of three goals in his last four starts in all competitions.
There is no reason why Martial cannot find similar joy against Walker, or rather in Walker-less spaces, and from here much will depend on how adventurous Shaw is willing to be. If he overlaps regularly then United can win. Riyad Mahrez certainly won’t track him.
5) Will De Bruyne dominate, whether against a diamond 4-4-2 or 3-5-2?
But perhaps this is to overthink the tactical battle. Kevin de Bruyne seems more like his old self during this mini-surge of good form at City, and it is likely the Belgian will be able to dominate the right-centre space – if fit – no matter what shape United deploy.
If it’s a diamond 4-4-2, like the one used at Everton, then Solskjaer’s side will surely leave too much room on the outside of the midfield for De Bruyne – and Mahrez joining him – to flourish in. If it’s the 3-5-2 United last lined up in against Man City, then as the wing-backs get pinned by Sterling and Mahrez the same spaces should open up.
As a false nine, number ten, or deeper midfielder, De Bruyne will inevitably pop up in the right half-space. He always does. When that happens, United’s ability to stop him will be as much about sheer luck as Solskjaer’s tactical decision-making.
Alex Keble is on Twitter
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