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

Manchester United’s 2-1 victory against Juventus in the Champions League has thrown the result of this Sunday’s Manchester derby into doubt. A series of comeback wins has proven that Jose Mourinho still has the backing of his players, while their late set-piece winner in Turin drew clear comparisons with their surprise result at the Etihad last April.

For United to beat Manchester City they’ll need to improve considerably; Pep Guardiola’s team won’t be as forgiving as Juventus or Bournemouth were over the last seven days. The hosts remain heavy favourites for obvious reasons, and yet United are developing a habit of producing shock performances out of thin air. What’s more, their triumph in April was based on taking a confrontational approach at odds with Mourinho’s usual low defensive block. How high the visitors engage with their opponents will probably define Sunday’s game.

1) Will United make the mistake of defending deep and inviting City pressure?
Unlike any other elite club in Europe, Man Utd rarely press high, instead dropping back into a low defensive shape that invites pressure; it is the foundation of their tactical and psychological shortcomings under Jose Mourinho.

United tend to drop off straight from the first whistle and don’t apply pressure to the ball until opponents are halfway inside their half, which explains why Mourinho’s side so often appear nervous and static. Teams are clearly emboldened by the time, space and territorial control they are afforded – mentally giving them the upper hand – while United’s hunched shape means it only takes a high tempo to create chances. By holding their positions, Mourinho’s players are caught flat-footed.

Poor first-half performances against Newcastle United, Bournemouth and Juventus (at Old Trafford) were the result of United’s low block. A similar display at the Etihad and the hosts will not give them the opportunity for a second-half comeback. Guardiola teams are best counteracted by pressing high, by bravely attempting to disrupt their rhythms and breaking forward in numbers. Beating City requires exactly the sort of risk taking that Mourinho is philosophically against, and yet to park the bus at the Etihad is to invite a thrashing.

2) …Or will Mourinho confront Guardiola’s team high up the pitch?
Matches from the 2018/19 season hint at a non-confrontational approach from the visitors, but United’s 3-2 victory at the Etihad last season suggests otherwise. United were surprisingly aggressive and high pressing back in April, setting the tone for a chaotic game of football by throwing everything at City for the opening 20 minutes.

United tried to stop City from playing out from the back, tackled high up the pitch, and pierced City’s soft underbelly when the chances arose. It was surprisingly brave – reckless, even – and in fact failed to prevent City marching into a 2-0 led. But United had surprised their hosts, sewing a seed of self-doubt that ultimately allowed Mourinho’s team to emerge with three points.

There are plenty of individual battles worth exploring ahead of the Manchester derby, but in the end the result, and respective performances of the two sides, will come down to whether Mourinho chooses to sit back or press high.

3) What midfield combination can stop the Silvas from controlling the game?
Whichever option Mourinho chooses, at some point the game will settle and the hosts will enjoy long periods of possession, at which point we have to ask: is there any configuration of the Man Utd midfield capable of controlling David and Bernardo Silva?

Marouane Fellaini surely deserves a start after his game-changing cameo in Turin, which probably means Mourinho will deploy a 4-3-3 with Fellaini, Nemanja Matic and Paul Pogba in the middle. The concern for United fans is that Matic’s poor form will allow both Silvas to dance into space in central attacking midfield, as David Brooks did so easily at Bournemouth a week ago. It didn’t take much movement for Brooks to lose Matic, a shadow of his former self this season.

To United’s left, Bernardo Silva’s weaving runs through the middle have added a new dimension to the City attack, and it is hard to imagine the ever-roaming Pogba getting to grips with the Portuguese. To the right, the threat of Benjamin Mendy’s crosses could pull Fellaini out of the middle.

4) Will movement of Sane and Sterling prove too much for Young and Shaw?
Even if United can restrict the influence of the Silvas, there is a mismatch on the flanks that should allow City to go about their usual business. Guardiola’s favourite line of attack is to slide through balls in between the full-back and centre-back, from which point an under-lapping winger can cut the ball back across goal for a tap in at the far post.

Stopping Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling is almost impossible, and yet United will have to do this with arguably the two weakest full-backs in the top six. Luke Shaw is frequently caught ball-watching, either losing his runner or simply standing five yards out of position, while Ashley Young showed at Bournemouth why he isn’t a natural right back. Ryan Fraser burst past him with ease, with Juan Mata’s lack of defensive support allowing Charlie Daniels to create a two-on-one down that flank.

When United are under the cosh, they will essentially have a flat back six in an attempt to control City’s wing play. However, the hosts are very patient, recycling the ball in harmless areas before suddenly switching play and exposing the slightest chink in the armour. Young and Shaw will need to have the game of their lives.

5) Can Bernardo Silva cope with Pogba and Martial on the counter?
Anthony Martial’s form is United’s best chance of scoring on the counter-attack, not least because – with Pogba’s support – he is on a potentially under-stocked side of the pitch. Bernardo Silva still struggles with his defensive responsibilities, opening up a pocket of space for Pogba, while Kyle Walker’s positioning could give Martial an edge.

Particularly in big games, Guardiola instructs Walker to form part of a back three when City have the ball, although the England international is also expected to step up and act as a defensive midfielder alongside Fernandinho when necessary. Consequently the threat of Pogba and Martial together could force Walker up and out of position, opening up a channel for the French winger. It isn’t exactly a flaw for United to exploit, but a foot race on this side is about as good as it gets for the visitors.

Alex Keble

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