Derby day in Manchester is upon us once more, and while the red half of the city hasn’t had much to celebrate over the past few years (see: the 6-1 thrashing at Old Trafford and the 4-1 humbling in Moyes’ debut outing) the excitement on both sides of the divide couldn’t be more palpable – and the stakes couldn’t be much higher.
In a repeat of days gone by, both sides occupy the top two positions in England’s top division. Pep’s freewheeling passing machine has been in full flow, churning out victory after victory (a joint-record 13 on the spin in the Premier League), without a single one of his players having to stoop so low as to even attempt to tackle an opponent. Meanwhile, Mourinho’s ‘boring boring’ United side are currently enjoying a 40-match unbeaten home run, during which they’ve scored four-plus goals on six separate occasions this season alone. Not too bad for a bus driver.
That means when the most potent attacking force in the land meets the stingiest defensive side in the country, something is bound to give. Unless we’re gifted a dour nil-nil draw, in which case b*llocks to football. But, if the footballing gods are smiling on us, with Pogba suspended, David Silva injured and Mourinho pondering just how big a bus he’s going to need to thwart Guardiola, the most eagerly-anticipated Manchester derby in years promises to be an absolute stormer.
Conspicuous by Their Absence
When the top two sides in England meet at Old Trafford on Sunday, they’ll do so without the presence of two of Manchester’s biggest stars.
Paul Pogba – the man of a million haircuts – will be missing for Mourinho’s men through suspension, following a reckless challenge on Arsenal’s Hector Bellerín, and it is his absence that could be one of the most crucial factors. With him, Manchester United boast an 87.5% win rate; without him, that plummets to 57.1%. Simply put, he is Mourinho’s main man. Without his rambunctious runs from deeper positions, United will have to compromise – but it may work in Mourinho’s favour. Ander Herrera is likely to deputise, and there is no greater exponent in the art of sh*thousery than the feisty Spaniard. If José is going to park the bus, then your bus driver may as well be a man who took a criminal amount of glee in marking Eden Hazard out of existence last season.
As for City, they are potentially without one of the finest playmakers in a generation, as the king of the slide-rule pass, David Silva, is currently nursing an injury described in amusingly vague terms by Pep Guardiola as “something”. Quite what that “something” is, no one’s quite sure – least of all José Mourinho, who has roundly accused his long-time nemesis of flagrant lies – but if it rules Silva out of the derby, City will be without a man who has already registered eight assists this campaign.
You Wait All Day for a Bus…
…and then you discover José Mourinho has nicked it and parked the bloody thing across the turf of Old Trafford. He’s been accused of peddling a brand of nihilistic, negative football that seeks to frustrate more than it seeks to entertain, but you can’t help admit Mourinho has a knack for performing in big games. Remember his 10-man Inter side resolutely clinging to their 3-2 aggregate score in the 2010 Champions League semi-finals? In order to stop another mesmeric Pep Guardiola side, José is going to need every ounce of nous he possesses, and it will most likely manifest in his recently-preferred 3-4-3 formation. Valencia and Young will probably occupy the wing-back roles, essentially transitioning into a back five when under pressure. Meanwhile, Lukaku, Martial and Lingard will be tasked with leading the counter.
It is always a dangerous tactic to cede so much of the ball to a Guardiola-managed side, especially one that contains Kevin De Bruyne, but the counter is where Pep’s men are weakest. It is no hyperbole to say City are the most exciting attacking side in Europe right now. Yet, it is their frailties at the back that remain the biggest cause for concern. Without Stones, Kompany and Mendy, you can’t help but feel City are a calamity waiting to happen – here’s looking at you Nicolas Otamendi! But, it all depends on which Romelu Lukaku turns up for United on the day: the free-scoring monster that began the season; or the lumbering shambles he’s portrayed for the past few weeks.
The Battle of the Big Guns
Quite literally, in this case, when you consider the sizeable physique of Romelu Lukaku and the obvious effort with which Sergio Aguero sculps his biceps. But, in a game likely to be dominated by overwhelming City possession and staunch Mourinho sh*thousery, the final word may well be had by two of the most highly-rated forwards in the Premier League.
Already, Sergio Aguero has nine goals in ten games, while Romelu Lukaku is not far behind with eight goals, and a half-chance at either end is all one of these supreme footballers need.
Lukaku ended his recent goal drought with a superb equaliser against CSKA Moscow on Tuesday, and while his record of six goals in 36 games against the ‘big six’ is questionable, he has been given all the tools by Mourinho to be United’s main threat. Young and Valencia love whipping in crosses, Juan Mata lives for assists and Paul Pogba is so intent on crafting a goal for his best mate, he often forgets how to defend. All Lukaku needs to do now is take that confidence from Tuesday. Oh, and learn how to hold a f*cking ball up.
On the other hand, and quite the opposite kind of striker to Lukaku, Aguero is a man who needs no confidence boosting. Capable of crafting his own chances, his explosive acceleration, deft first touch and clinical finishing have seen him recently become City’s all-time leading goal scorer. Quite how United will be able to stop Aguero is a mystery, but with a bit of luck, Chris Smalling will be nowhere near United’s starting eleven – and that’s always a good start.
And if all else fails, it’s not like either team can’t turn to Gabriel Jesus or Zlatan Ibrahimovic, is it?
Whatever happens on Sunday, whether Kevin De Bruyne runs rings around Matic, or Ander Herrera kicks everything in sight, the impetus is with Mourinho: even this early in the season, they need to reduce City’s lead at the top to keep the title race alive. As for Guardiola, he would probably just be happy with getting one over on his old rival.