The first Manchester derby of the season is upon us. With Manchester City eight points clear at the top of the table, Manchester United desperately need a win to slow down the sky blue juggernaut. This is easier said than done against a team yet to lose a Premier League game this season.
Manchester United host a team that is running away at the top of the table. Their opponents have been comfortably the best side in the division, and some have already dubbed them champions-elect. The team in blue have swept those before them during a record-setting winning streak, inspired by a Belgian playmaker of transcendent talent, and a manager of unquestionable pedigree.
I could be describing the 2017/18 iteration of Manchester City, with their 13 consecutive league wins this season, on track to break both the goals and points record in a single campaign. A City side conducted from the sidelines by the legendary Pep Guardiola. Kevin de Bruyne in the form of his life on the field. I could be describing the game taking place at Old Trafford this Sunday.
Or, I could be in fact describing the game that took place on Sunday, 16th April 2017, against a Chelsea side en route to the title. That Chelsea side also won 13 games in a row from October to December. They were built around the mercurial Eden Hazard, with Antonio Conte an apocalyptic bundle of furious energy on the bench. Chelsea lost 2-0 that day.
A completely different beast
City are a completely different beast from last year’s Chelsea side. The Citizens come at you in waves of pressure, while Chelsea were masters of the sudden counter-attack. City are the more dangerous offensive side, boasting an unending arsenal of players that can single-handedly win games. Sergio Aguero, Gabriel Jesus, Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane, David Silva, and the aforementioned de Bruyne could each anchor an attack on their own. Jose Mourinho has an unenviable task this weekend. How do you stop the unstoppable?
He has a few threads of hope to cling on to. City have not looked at their imperious best in the last few games. A series of 2-1 wins over Huddersfield, Southampton and West Ham have been ground out with late goals. Mourinho’s side, however, are fresh off an excellent win against a resurgent Arsenal. They may be shorn of Paul Pogba, but Mourinho has masterminded such wins before.
Have Herrera hunt de Bruyne
Of all of City’s attacking talents, De Bruyne is the crown jewel. The Belgian, considered not good enough to make the grade at Chelsea, has been at his alluring, irrepressible best this year. He is the heartbeat of Guardiola’s side, the on-field general who dictates where the rest of the troops move, and has the talent to take any game into his own hands and shape it as he pleases. To stop City, you have to stop de Bruyne.
In this regard, it may be in Mourinho’s best interest to do what he did against Chelsea. In that game, Ander Herrera was tasked with hounding Eden Hazard, and the combative Spaniard responded with the best performance of his Manchester United career. Hazard was suffocated, and with no room to turn, no space to thrive in, he faded from the game. It is a big ask, but if Herrera can produce a similar performance and shackle de Bruyne, he holds the key to the derby.
Clip City’s wings
One feature of both Manchester sides has been their aggressive use of wingbacks. Kyle Walker’s price tag raised eyebrows, but he has been in excellent offensive form for City, while Fabian Delph is adapting to the role following the injury to Benjamin Mendy. United have the old guard manning those positions in Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young, both of whom have been outstanding this season.
United’s wingbacks build from a more solid defensive platform, and on breaks can take advantage of the space behind Walker and Delph. Walker in particular is known to bomb forward on every occasion, and Young (alongside Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford) can take advantage of this. On the opposite flank, Valencia will provide a stern test of Delph’s credentials, and if the Englishman cannot keep up, it could expose City’s centre-backs.
Use their height advantage
If City’s backline gets exposed to crosses from the wings, it allows United to use one avenue in which they are head and shoulders above their rivals: physical prowess.
Romelu Lukaku will relish challenging for the ball in the air, and will be joined on set-pieces by players like Nemanja Matic and Marouane Fellaini. City have been susceptible to crosses, with goals in their last three games being conceded as a result of aerial balls from the flanks.
City’s centre-backs have been guilty of losing runners in the box, and that could play into Mourinho’s hands, particularly on set-pieces. City will be desperate for Vincent Kompany to return to full fitness in time for the game to add some height and steel to the backline.
Press the centre-backs
United started off their last two games against Watford and Arsenal in fairly similar fashion. Jesse Lingard brings endeavour and energy, and Mourinho has used him to hassle and harry defences with an aggressive press early on. In both games this had led to early goals for United.
With John Stones still injured, Guardiola is missing his ball-playing centre-back. City move the ball out a little slower without the Englishman, and the extra few seconds on the ball can make all the difference. By closing down the centre-backs, United can force them to play the ball long, feeding into their aerial superiority, or make mistakes, allowing Martial, Lingard, Rashford or Lukaku to take advantage.
Pray that Dave continues to save
City will create chances. The way they have been playing this season, that is as close to a guarantee as you can get in football. Against Arsenal, United’s defence surrendered a veritable buffet of opportunities but David de Gea stood firm, a dam holding the flood of Gunner attacks at bay.
If de Gea can make a few more stunning saves, he may be able to plant seeds of doubt in the minds of his opponents. On his current form, he is the best goalkeeper in the Premier League, if not the world, and he can cement that by stopping City. Phil Jones’ return is a boost for United, but they will need de Gea to be at his physics-defying best to keep out City’s vaunted front line, and even then it is not a sure thing.
The uncomfortable reality
The uncomfortable reality of this situation for United is that if they do not win, the title race may be over. There are still plenty of games to play, but the confidence that City gain from a win at Old Trafford will be priceless to them. Conversely, if United win, the landscape of the title picture changes. City will no longer be immortal, a faint mirage in the distance, getting further away with each week. The teams below them will begin to believe that there is every chance to drag them back, kicking and screaming, into an all out war for the title. City are the favourites, but United will not lay down without a fight.
Red versus blue, defence versus attack, Mourinho versus Guardiola, United versus City. It all comes to a head on Sunday.