Why United's energetic stretching should prove too much for suffering City
Manchester City's latest spluttering Premier League performance provided the firmest proof yet that both tactically and individually this team is starved of the creativity that flourishes in youth. From predictable attacking tactics to unimaginative individual endeavour, Manuel Pellegrini's side seem to physically and psychologically reflect the naturally developing defects of age.
Conversely, Manchester United players, with their new swashbuckling tactics of aerial bombardment and pummelling of the wings, are crackling with creative energy. It seems unlikely that City, vulnerable in wide areas, can prevent their rivals from pulling clear in the race for second place.
The latest player to re-emerge from the black cloud that's finally lifting from Old Trafford is Juan Mata, whose buzzing movement from the right flank has corrected United's lopsided, Ashley Young-centric attacking tactics and helped stretch opposition defences across the Red Devils' vast pitch.
In his last two matches, Mata – scoring twice and assisting a third – has averaged 97 touches per game, reflecting the dominant impact of his re-introduction. Considering the defensive vulnerability of Manchester City's left side, his creative influence could be decisive on Sunday afternoon.
Left-back Gael Clichy's positional lapses go largely unnoticed, but a disproportionate number of their goals conceded are initiated from his side, where Clichy's attacking instincts – exacerbated by David Silva's failure to track back – occasionally leave his team-mates exposed.
Note that Mata stays very wide, stretching an opposition defence wary of Young's threat from the other side.
Even against attacking teams, Clichy holds a very high position and Silva rarely tracks back for his team.
We can expect United to bombard this area of the pitch on Sunday as part of Louis van Gaal's new tactical approach that focuses on quick distribution to the wings; United average 24 crosses per match (the third-highest in division) and threw 41 balls into the box in their last match against Aston Villa.
In order to counteract Mata and his in-form team-mate Antonio Valencia, City may field the more disciplined James Milner on the left side of midfield. Either way, defending against United's long ball, quick transition philosophy and subsequent harassing of the wings will be tricky for a leggy team that's suffering.
In United's last match, the pace and trickery of Mata helped Valencia attack the byline with gusto. City attempt just 16.6 dribbles per match (12 teams in the division try more), and are fouled only 7.8 times per game, fewer than any other team. The speed and incision of a reinvigorated United will surely conquer.