The 172nd Manchester derby is set to be most highly anticipated spectacle of the current Premier League season. Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho will compete in their first competitive match in nearly four years, and appear to be title contenders following their unbeaten start to the season.
Mourinho’s record against Guardiola is unconvincing, but a tilt at Old Trafford with a stable squad places United as slight favourites prior to kick-off. Nevertheless, this is still a battle between football’s chief pragmatist and the modern-day innovator in Guardiola. United is expected to congest central areas, hold a deep-line, and break when the opportunity is presented, whereas Guardiola’s City will dominate possession with hopes of breaking down Mourinho’s sturdy back-line.
The main talking point, however, involves Guardiola’s replacement for the suspended Sergio Aguero.
“Sergio is an important player for us but we knew seven or eight days ago he was not going to be able to play and we would need to use other players,” said Guardiola. “I am a new guy here and I have to learn how things work, but you can be sure I learn quick. I take note of what happened and store it for the future.”
Kelechi Iheanacho is the suitable fill-in, but the City manager has various options to choose from upfront. Nolito is a direct runner that would drift across the front-line, aiming to receive possession and run at defenders, while Silva can operate as a false-nine, encourage runners beyond United’s back-line, though ensuring City dominate central areas.
Raheem Sterling, on the other hand, serves as an interesting tactical prospect. Sterling’s tactical intelligence is unprecedented at a young age, and his past experience in a central role witnessed the England international drop deep to pick up the ball to run at defenders, stretch the opposing back-line with quick sprints into the channel, and his ability to find open space within the penalty box.
Ironically, Sterling’s main weakness is his finishing, but the 21-year-old’s rejuvenated form under Guardiola has reassured his threat in the final third. City’s won several penalties this season via Sterling’s dribbling and pace, while his poacher finishing around the box illustrates the rapid improvement in comparison to last season.
Claudio Bravo is expected to make his City debut, which will improve the away side’s distribution and overall buildup play out the back. However, United’s aerial threat via set-pieces and crosses from wide areas could fluster the diminutive Chilean.
Leroy Sane and Ilkay Gundogan are also fit for selection which would result in a rejig of the XI’s Guardiola has selected thus far. Still, if Guardiola opts to start without a recognized striker, United’s back-line will face a stern test against the speed from either Sane, Jesus Navas, Nolito or Sterling.
In truth, Mourinho’s main concern rests in protecting space between the lines against Silva and Kevin De Bruyne. Guardiola has fielded both men in deeper central roles, with license to charge into the box or towards the channels to create overloads in wide areas. With the full-backs adopting narrow positions in half space, and Fernandinho or Gundogan sitting deep, both De Bruyne and Silva will receive ample space to create in key areas.
Gundogan’s debut would improve City’s aim to dictate the tempo from deep, and if Guardiola opts to field Silva as a false-nine, Fernandinho would finally receive the opportunity to play in his preferred box-to-box role without fear of covering space for the languid Yaya Toure. More so, Gundogan’s inclusion would test Wayne Rooney’s tactical resolve as he’d be forced to press the German throughout, which has proved a difficult task for the United captain in recent years.
This is undoubtedly a troubling prospect for United’s midfield, as they’ve looked unconvincing in protecting these zones. Their narrow win at Hull witnessed Adama Diomande easily drift into pockets of space behind the United midfield to receive possession and charge towards goal. When Southampton traveled to Old Trafford, United’s midfield also endured spells where they couldn’t cope with the passing of Jordi Clasie, Steven Davis and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, and solely benefited from their lack of a goal-threat around the box.
Here, and specifically in big matches, Mourinho has been renowned for flipping his 4-2-3-1 into a 4-3-3 and sacrificing a central midfielder, which means Rooney would be omitted. Rooney’s tactical discipline has been exposed in the past, and though he’s capable of game-defining moments whilst simultaneously producing average performances, Mourinho can’t afford to be overrun in midfield.
This is suited for Morgan Schneiderlin’s physical presence and ball-winning skills or Ander Herrera’s slick passing and tenacity in midfield to offer protection ahead of what should be an unchanged back-line. Perhaps a slightly advanced role would enable Pogba to finally flourish in a United shirt, and his combinations with Ibrahimovic in prior matches have been promising.
With that being said, Mourinho may also be tempted to start Marcus Rashford and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, assuming the latter is fit to participate from the start.
“He [Mkhitaryan] is available,” said Mourinho. “I’m not saying he’s ready to play 90 minutes but he’s ready to try to help us.”
The duo offers tactical discipline, while possessing excellent pace and dribbling skills to pose a threat via swift counter-attacks in transition. Martial’s slow start to the season puts his selection in jeopardy, but he still offers a similar goal threat against City’s unconvincing full-backs, who are expected to adopt fairly high positions.
Similar to the Ferguson era, United will pack the midfield and keep their defensive lines compact out of possession, before quickly scurrying forward with numbers on the counter. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s dislike for Guardiola is definitely motivation, but his ability to operate as a creator to get runners such as Pogba, Mkhitaryan, Rashford or Martial forward could be decisive. Likewise, Ibrahimovic’s aerial threat flustered every opponent United’s encountered thus far, and he’ll relish individual duels against Nicolas Otamendi or John Stones.
As expected, neither side has been overly convincing to start the season, and while the pattern of the match is predictable, this could be an extremely cautious showdown. City will dominate possession and aim to bypass United’s high-pressing in the early stages of the match, but Guardiola’s extensive ball retention has been a form of defence in high-profile away matches during his career.
It wouldn’t be far-fetched to see both managers play for a draw, yet here, the personnel decisions upfront should determine how the two sides approach the match.