The FourFourTwo Preview: Man United vs Man City
Noisy neighbours look to claw their way towards table-topping rivals after heavy investment.
MAN UNITED FORM
- CSKA 1-1 Man Utd (CL)
- Everton 0-3 Man Utd (Prem)
- Arsenal 3-0 Man Utd (Prem)
- Man Utd 2-1 Wolfsburg (CL)
- Man Utd 3-0 S’land (Prem)
MAN CITY FORM
- Man City 2-1 Sevilla (CL)
- Man City 5-1 B’mouth (Prem)
- Man City 6-1 Newcastle (Prem)
- B Gladbach 1-2 Man City (CL)
- Spurs 4-1 Man City (Prem)
A year-and-a-bit in, it seems fair to conclude that Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United project is an odd one. Odd because, given Van Gaal’s centrality to Dutch football culture and Dutch football culture’s obsession with aesthetic perfection, his United team have been a pretty dull spectacle at the best of times.
This dreariness peaked (or more accurately, troughed) when Liverpool came to town to play out a game that was truly one of the most eye-clawingly tedious in recent memory. But that was merely the most extreme example of a regular trend: even last week’s win at Everton – on paper a comprehensive crushing of one of the league’s tougher opponents – was a strangely muted affair.
At the end of it all, though, perhaps the most telling fact is that those games yielded a comfortable six points for United, and that’s essentially the Van Gaal reign in a microcosm: you may not stay awake to witness it, but the club are slowly, unfussily dragging themselves back towards that perch. It’s just that, with United’s tradition of pulse-quickening football and Van Gaal’s association with the same – not to mention the small matter of the quarter of a billion pounds spent since his arrival – you’d expect the whole enterprise to be a tad more easy on the eye.
The modern incarnation of Manchester City, meanwhile, are almost the complete inverse. While results have often wavered, they rarely stand accused of denying the neutrals their popcorn.
From their head-to-head battles with Spurs for Champions League qualification in the early years of Sheikh Mansour’s ownership, to Sergio Aguero’s canonical winner against QPR and 2014's 102-goal title win (and even their inexplicable nosedive last season), City have made a habit of generating the sort of high drama and unpredictability upon which the Premier League so loves to market itself.
This season, seven wins from nine have seen Pellegrini’s men breeze into an early lead. True to form, though, they’ve done it with no little generosity to the neutrals: both in being entertaining in victory (averaging just under three goals a game so far) but also by using a pair of jack-in-the-box defeats to West Ham and Spurs to remind the world that Cityitis still has no known cure.
Add to this the presence of the division’s three most exuberant young attackers in the form of their lives, and the fact that either side could top the table come Sunday night, and we have a Manchester derby that, if drama matches intrigue, could be a stormer.
Luke Shaw and Ashley Young are United's only unavailable senior players. Chris Smalling and Phil Jones are likely to continue their fruitful partnership at centre-back, and any change to the Schneiderlin-Schweinsteiger-Herrera midfield which ran so smoothly against Everton would be a surprise.
For City, skipper Vincent Kompany – if allowed back off the naughty step – may return after seven games out but the derby will be without its two best players in Sergio Aguero and, barring a shock recovery, David Silva. Samir Nasri is also a doubt, so Yaya Toure may find himself pushed upfield if the belt-and-braces double-pivot of Fernando and Fernandinho is employed.
Key battle: De Bruyne vs Schweinderlin
With the injured Silva having to relinquish the playmaker’s baton last week, De Bruyne grabbed it keenly and continued at breakneck speed, playing the puppeteer masterfully against Bournemouth before marching into centre stage with supreme timing to steal a midweek win against Sevilla.
A fortnight previously, United’s midfield screen had been studiously dismantled by an Arsenal side who repeatedly lured Bastian Schweinsteiger upfield before unleashing their cohort of creators to run riot in the space vacated. Alexis Sanchez was the chief beneficiary. United seemed to have addressed this against Everton but their capacity to nullify De Bruyne will be a truer test of their resilience.
Indeed, there’s something of Sanchez in the Belgian: another muscular, direct inside-left equally adept rocketing off a 30-yarder as threading a defence-piercing through-ball. De Bruyne is well-equipped to exploit any space around United's defence. Whether he can find it in the manner of his Chilean counterpart could be crucial to Sunday’s outcome.
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
- United 4-2 City (PL, Apr 15)
- City 1-0 United (PL, Nov 14)
- United 0-3 City (PL, Mar 14)
- City 4-1 United (PL, Sep 13)
- United 1-2 City (PL, Apr 13)
"A mistake in judgment isn't fatal, but too much anxiety about judgment is." Pauline Kael was talking about film criticism but she could equally have been referring to the key difference between the Moyes and Van Gaal regimes at Old Trafford. The Dutchman’s methods may not have always appeared perfect, but he’s never applied them with anything less than full conviction.
Next week, when we win against Manchester City, then we can say 'OK, now we think maybe about title aspirations’
While Moyes always seemed haunted by his latest loss, the Dutchman reassures by constantly effusing the importance of process – though he does so to such an extent that things like scoreline and points tally often seem like an afterthought.
Recent noises suggest that fanaticism may be lessening, though, and Van Gaal reckons victory on Sunday would lay the parameters for their season. “We have to be more consistent,” was his response to the win at Goodison. “So next week, when we win against Manchester City, then we can say 'OK, now we think maybe about title aspirations’.”
Across town, with the skinny-tied spectre of a certain Catalan supercoach refusing to exorcise itself from the back pages, Pellegrini is under some pressure to inhabit that narrow Venn diagram crossover of results man and aesthete’s choice – and so far this season he's largely succeeded. His side have outscored their rivals by nearly half again, registering 24 goals to United’s 15, while conceding equally few (eight apiece).
Ultimately, though, a home win on Sunday would put Van Gaal’s workmen above his showmen. Pellegrini will want to prevent this – if only to prevent the whisperings that would inevitably follow.
Facts and figures
- Manchester City are looking for their 50th competitive win in the Manchester derby (W49 D50 L69).
- Wayne Rooney has scored 11 goals in Manchester derbies (all competitions); more than any other player in this fixture.
- Kevin De Bruyne has 23 assists in 41 league appearances since the start of last season; 3 more than any other player in the top five European Leagues.
More FFT Stats Zone facts
Could be anything. But with a point likely to satisfy both sides and City's gung-ho instincts softened by their visitor status, don't be surprised if caginess reigns supreme. 1-1.