Nine matchweeks have been done away with in the 2015/16 Barclays Premier League season, bringing us to the first Manchester Derby of the ongoing campaign.
Tomorrow’s game between Manchester United and Manchester City will be the 170th meeting between the two Manchester clubs that have enjoyed good seasons up until this point. City sit atop of the table, with 21 points, two ahead of United who are currently in third place, behind second-placed Arsenal, who have the same number of points (19) as the Red Devils but are ahead on goal difference.
Both teams have lost two of their first nine league games, with the difference being United’s home draw against Newcastle United. The quality of football has been better than last season from Louis van Gaal’s side, with the acquisition of Anthony Martial from AS Monaco proving to be a masterstroke thus far. Tomorrow’s hosts have on average scored close to 1.7 goals per game in the league, and defensively, have been a lot tighter as well, with Chris Smalling showing great leadership qualities during the early stages of this season. Yes, in the away game against the Gunners, before the last international break, they were found wanting at the back, with Arsene Wenger’s wizards exploiting United in the wide areas where Ashley Young played as the makeshift left fullback for the injured Luke Shaw, and Matteo Darmian found Alexis Sanchez a hot cup of coffee to handle on United’s right-hand-side.
Van Gaal’s men have yet to lose at Old Trafford in all competitions this season, and would want to cling onto that record when Mark Clattenburg blows the final whistle tomorrow. They have scored a little more than 2 goals, on average, in each of their last five games and probably need to continue in that vein in front of goal when coming up against Manuel Pellegrini’s side that has scored a whopping 24 goals in their league campaign so far. United might have to score at least a couple of goals to win tomorrow against a City side bereft of Sergio Aguero and David Silva, even without whom they managed to overcome a solid Sevilla side by 2-1 in the UEFA Champions League Group D fixture on Wednesday, when United, playing away at CSKA Moscow, managed a 1-1 draw.
With United looking a lot more settled this season than they were during the last, how should City lineup to negate the hosts’ threats? Which personnel should Pellegrini start with tomorrow?
Answers to those questions and much, much more to follow…
The Cityzens’ backline has been a tad wobbly in Vincent Kompany’s absence caused by the calf injury he picked up against Juventus on Matchday 1 of this season’s Champions League. They have not kept a cleansheet in any competition since the 15th of September, even conceding a very soft goal against Sunderland, who are the third lowest scorers (with just 8 goals) in the league, in the Capital One Cup.
Eliaquim Mangala and Nicolas Otamendi, you could say, have been getting used to playing alongside each other and looked better as a central defensive partnership against Unai Emery’s side in the Champions League on Wednesday. Kompany made a substitute appearance after his countryman Kevin de Bruyne had given City the decisive second goal late into stoppage time. The question, therefore, for Pellegrini is whether his talismanic skipper should return to the starting lineup for a pivotal fixture as this one, replacing either Mangala or Otamendi at the heart of the defense. If I was City’s manager, I would definitely bring him in, for the Argentine centre-back, reverting to the Kompany-Mangala partnership that helped City keep a quintet of cleansheets in their first five league games.
The other conundrum for Pellegrini is in the fullback positions, where all three fit fullbacks – Aleksandar Kolarov, Bacary Sagna and Pablo Zabaleta – played crucial roles on Wednesday. Zabaleta was replaced by Kolarov at the hour mark, with Sagna, who was playing at left-back till then, switching to his favorite right-back position where he simply has been impenetrable thus far this season.
This has to be a tactical decision for the City manager, who has to weigh in United’s threat from wide positions, where you could have Martial, Memphis Depay or even Ashley Young playing as left wingers and facing up to the City right-back on the afternoon. Zabaleta brings in dogged attitude, exudes tremendous passion and will love to feature against United for a massive game as this. He has, in the last couple of seasons, been troubled by quick, tricky wingers like Franck Ribery, Neymar and Gervinho. Pellegrini has taken that into account in the past, and hence preferred Sagna or Micah Richards, before he left to AFC Fiorentina on loan, in the Champions League games.
The decision on playing Zabaleta does not rest on him alone, though. Kolarov came in as a second-half substitute against Sevilla, after missing City’s 5-1 home victory against Bournemouth due to an injury he had picked up while appearing for Serbia in the Euro 2016 Qualifier against Portugal. The Serbian only has 30 minutes of action behind him since recovering from the injury, making you wonder if it is enough for him to start a fixture that is sure to be played with a lot of intensity. And it could be a selection that impacts Zabaleta’s place in the side as well. If Kolarov is fit enough to start though, I think Sagna should start ahead of Zabaleta at right-back, with the Serbian to the left of Mangala – reverting to the backline that nullified the Chelsea and Everton’s attacking forces, most notably, early on this season. Joe Hart, another City player who has been in tremendous form this season, is sure to take his place between the sticks.
Pellegrini has set his side up in the 4-2-3-1 system in most of the games this season. The double pivot of Yaya Toure and Fernandinho has been omnipresent, with the league cup tie against Sunderland and league clash at home against the Magpies being the only two instances when this duo did not start together for City. And there should not be a change to this selection from Pellegrini, who will want Fernandinho to continue his good work that he has been doing right from the beginning of this season and Toure to come up with a performance akin to the one against the defending UEFA Europa League champions.
In front of this duo, Pellegrini has got a couple of decisions to make, though they, by no means, are tough ones. De Bruyne is a certainty in City’s expected 4-2-3-1 because of two reasons: Silva is out injured; and the Belgian has goals to his game, in addition to creativity and smooth technique. Jesus Navas continues to be a great player for City and played extremely well against his old club, Sevilla, on Wednesday. He, like de Bruyne, is a certainly to start as well, on City’s right-hand-side, where he could have a go at Darmian, Daley Blind or Young, three players who could feature at left-back for tomorrow’s hosts.
Tomorrow’s visitors have scored 11 goals in their last two league fixtures, but Wilfried Bony has flattered to deceive in the two games he has got to play in since Aguero picked up a hamstring injury on international duty. His brace against Bournemouth was expected to restore his confidence levels but, to the disappointment of City’s faithful, the muscular Ivorian flopped in that game as well, and de Bruyne came to City’s rescue with a 92nd minute winner.
Pellegrini has continually backed Bony to come good and fill the void left by Aguero. From the Ivorian’s point of view, he excels at holding up the ball, an aspect of his game that was palpable during City’s 5-1 home victory against the Cherries last weekend. But, on the downside, he is bereft of pace and seems to lack the cutting edge whenever he receives the ball. City too, with their fluid style of play, seem to be impeded of their rhythm because of Bony, who lacks mobility, usually plays with his back to goal and seldom on the defenders’ shoulders.
City, with their dynamic midfielders, will create chances for Bony. But, the question is: will he take them, coming up against David de Gea?
In the last couple of games, against Bournemouth and Sevilla, City looked to play in some sort of a 4-4-2 system that had Raheem Sterling partnering Bony up top. If I was Pellegrini, I would want someone like Sterling, with his speed and trickery, running at the Smalling-led backline. Playing Bony, a goal scorer not in the best of nicks, could comfort United, who had a nightmare against Arsenal at the Emirates not so long ago, simply because of the pace and directness the North Londoners hit them with, in the opening quarter of the game. City have Navas to do just that, on the right flank, but they also would want the focal point of the attack to be incisive and harness the chances. At this moment, Bony does not look capable of leading the City attack.
Therefore, I will revert to the 4-2-3-1 system and have Sterling playing as the striker. He is not a great goal scorer yet, but his first half hat-trick against Bournemouth last weekend, is evidence of what the Englishman can do when played up top. Also, after de Bruyne’s heroics against Sevilla, the Belgian and former Liverpool man could share the responsibilities of leading City’s attack tomorrow.
Playing Sterling up top could free up the No.10 role that Toure could be entrusted with, especially after his showing, in an attacking sense, against the La Liga side on Wednesday. Also, Fernando and Fernandinho work well in tandem and affect City positively, more often than not when played together.
This, I think, will be an even contest between two sides that are playing well at this stage of the season and are genuine title contenders as well. Van Gaal’s side has been sluggish in the way it has started the recent games. Against City, they are at home and the confidence of having made a good start should stand them in good stead in such a crucial fixture. From City’s point of view, they have the better individuals compared to their derby rivals, notwithstanding the absences of Aguero and Silva, who are ruled out of tomorrow’s derby. The aforementioned line-up is City’s best bet, in my opinion, to continue the dominance they have enjoyed over the Red Devils in recent seasons.