Tactical preview: Could Clichy help City finally shackle United star Nani?

There can be only one game to focus on this weekend – Manchester United vs Manchester City at Old Trafford.

It’s a meeting of second and first and surely the most important Manchester derby the Premier League has ever seen. It should be a tight, tense game – though hopefully not as tight as last season’s first meeting between the teams, a terrible 0-0 draw at the City of Manchester Stadium.

Last season’s fixtures were all about getting control of the midfield zone – both sides started both games with three central midfielders in a defensive 4-3-3 / 4-5-1 shape. Despite both preferring different systems so far this season – United a flexible 4-4-1-1, City an equally fluid 4-2-3-1 with Sergio Aguero behind Edin Dzeko – it wouldn’t be a surprise if both teams reverted to their old style.

Sir Alex Ferguson showed last week at Anfield that he’s quite prepared to pack the centre of the pitch at the expense of more attacking players, while Roberto Mancini’s early substitution in the midweek win over Villarreal (Gareth Barry replacing Adam Johnson after 40 minutes) indicates that he still likes the trio of Barry, Yaya Toure and Nigel de Jong against strong opponents.

With this in mind, it’s interesting to note that in last season’s clash at Old Trafford, the number of passes attempted and completed by each side was extremely similar.

One of the most interesting battles will be between City’s most advanced midfielder, and United’s deepest player in that zone. In United’s draw at Anfield last week, it was their holding player, Darren Fletcher, who was more involved than any other player – while the man he was picking up, Steven Gerrard, was Liverpool’s most prominent midfielder.

Fletcher had a lot of time on the ball to pick a pass in that game, but lacks the invention of Paul Scholes, a key player in this fixture last season, or even an on-form Michael Carrick. Ferguson might consider using Carrick as the holder, but considering how he was overpowered by Toure in last year’s FA Cup semi-final at Wembley, he’ll probably stick to a combination of Fletcher and Phil Jones deep in midfield.

Two of the most interesting battles concern United attacking players who were omitted at Anfield. First, Nani is a player that really worries Roberto Mancini – in both games last season the City boss brought Pablo Zabaleta across to the left to defend against him, and in the game at Old Trafford, he played both Zabaleta and Aleksandar Kolarov in tandem to stop him.

He now has another option, Gael Clichy. The Frenchman has more pace than the other two options at left-back, but was often outwitted by Nani in Arsenal v Manchester United games in recent years. Indeed, you can trace Nani’s rise to a top-level player back to United’s 3-1 win over Arsenal at the Emirates in January 2010, when he brilliantly got the better of Clichy in the first half.

That said – aside from a ludicrous handball decision that resulted in him conceding a penalty – Clichy coped well with Nani at Old Trafford last year, as the image below shows.

Finally, the clash between Vincent Kompany and Wayne Rooney is always a great watch. The Belgian is a brilliant penalty box defender but sometimes looks vulnerable when forced to come up the pitch and turn quickly (a little like Nemanja Vidic), whilst Rooney’s probable false nine role means he’ll be dropping deep into midfield and bringing Kompany out with him.

The positions of passes received by Rooney in last year’s game shows how much he drifts around, but Kompany’s frequent interceptions demonstrates how he tried to get in front of Rooney to win the ball. Indeed, but for Rooney’s fabulous bicycle kick that was voted goal of the season, Kompany largely kept him quiet.

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