Man Utd v Man City: One big game, five big questions

Matt Stead

1) Will Solskjaer deploy a 3-4-1-2 to repeat last season’s triumph?
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has an excellent record against Pep Guardiola thanks to the Manchester United manager’s willingness to sit deep, absorb pressure, and counter-attack behind Manchester City’s high defensive line. It’s a simple enough idea but one too humble for most big clubs, whereas Solskjaer has shown time and again he is happy concede nearly 75% possession to City.

United will most likely to deploy the same 3-4-1-2 formation used in the 2-0 win at Old Trafford in March, despite the fact this system was badly exposed by RB Leipzig in midweek. Using a back three and wing-backs strengthens a weak point for United, while using split strikers Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford allows United to run both channels. Bruno Fernandes can sit in the number ten space and launch the counters.

This is exactly how United ran out deserved 2-0 winners when the sides last met, and not too much has changed for either side in the interim.

READ MORE: 16 Conclusions: Man Utd 2-0 Man City

2) Will Man City’s passive press allow Fernandes to flourish?
The biggest change since March is an alarming drop-off in Man City’s pressing; it is less intense, less frequent, and only in deeper areas of the pitch. This might be a deliberate ploy by Guardiola to conserve some of his players’ energy, although the way their pressing has gradually declined suggests it is merely a symptom of the waning energy and purpose of his side.

Without Fernandinho and David Silva to lead the way, City just don’t close down quickly or ruthlessly enough, and it is allowing their opponents time to collect their thoughts after winning possession. City used to keep teams penned in, attacking relentlessly by denying them time on the ball, grinding them into submission. Without that pressing intensity, City’s attacks are more passive, coming in easily manageable waves.

Worse still, it leaves them open to being counter-attacked. City aren’t losing goals because of a high defensive line or the lack of a leader at the back, it’s because the press isn’t effective higher up the pitch. Fernandes, like so many players this season, will have time to get his head up and pick a pass over the top of the City back line.

READ MORE: Ridiculous statistics: Fernandes on course to break award record

3) Or can Guardiola inspire his players to repeat RB Leipzig’s showing?
Man City’s best chance of disrupting the familiar pattern of recent Manchester derbies is to fly out of the blocks, emulating the assertiveness of RB Leipzig’s first half performance in midweek. Julien Nagelsmann’s team managed to expose Solskjaer’s tactical deficiencies even in a low block – simply by out-running and out-battling them.

That might sound a bit old-fashioned, a bit vague to write in a tactical column, but no team in modern football is more susceptible to the effects of high energy than Manchester United. Solskjaer simply isn’t coaching this team properly, instead expecting his players to freely improvise and problem solve in all areas of the pitch.

That means they are highly vulnerable to letting the occasion ‘get to them’; to looking hopelessly lost whenever a team turns up with a clear plan that can be confidently, and quickly, enacted. In recent Manchester derbies Guardiola has allowed the game to drift, making a tentative start in the hope of feeling the game out before making bold moves. For once, he needs his players to race out of the block: press hard, pass quickly, and show that Man Utd’s foundations are built on sand.

4) How can City take advantage of the problem on United’s right?
RB Leipzig knew just how to poke holes in United’s 3-4-1-2, and there are lessons from Tuesday’s game for Man City to learn.

Leipzig tended to bunch their play down the left flank, where 49% of their attacks took place, with the aim to overload Aaron Wan-Bissaka until Angelino (who scored one and assisted two more) gets on the ball on the overlap. In fact, even when Leipzig went down the right, they would often look for a quick switch to Angelino after pulling United away from that side.

Nagelsmann clearly anticipated that Wan-Bissaka would not get support from midfield (which he didn’t) and that Victor Lindelof was a weak link on the right side of a back three (he was). Man City’s best chance of creating chances at Old Trafford is instructing Raheem Sterling to hug the left touchline at all times – and wait for a long diagonal from Kevin de Bruyne, who will drag United across as he interacts with Riyad Mahrez.

READ MORE: The Treble: Cagey Manchester derby, Everton woe, Spurs title test

5) Can Stones be trusted against Rashford?
Assuming Man City fail to up the tempo, meaning Fred can weave through midfield on the counter and Fernandes finds room to feed the strikers, then the game’s key battle is between Marcus Rashford and John Stones. Guardiola has dropped Aymeric Laporte to the bench recently, but this is the first major test of whether giving Stones another chance is a mistake.

Too often he has made positional errors, and too often he is beaten in a foot race having failed to anticipate danger. Rashford would certainly rather play up against Stones, who will need a lot of support from Kyle Walker.

City’s right-back will probably stay deep for long periods of the game to help form a back three, summarising the most likely tactical pattern we will get. Unfortunately, a draw is a good result for Guardiola and Solskjaer, and given they are in the middle of an exhausting December run – and are rightly wary of each other’s threats – Man Utd and Man City will probably play out a dull, low-scoring draw.

Alex Keble hosts a Premier League pre-match tactics show at