TACTICAL football boff Chris Bland (@blandc_1996) shares his breakdown of Sunday's Manchester derby at Old Trafford.
Manchester United v Manchester City | Sunday 8th March 2020, 16:30 | Sky Sports
The fourth billing of the Manchester derby this season takes place on Sunday afternoon, and with results and performances starting to pick up in recent weeks for Ole Gunnar Solksjaer’s side, an unlikely top four push looks to now be on the cards and has added an extra dynamic to an already hotly-contested encounter.
Manchester United continued their resurgent form with an easy win over Derby, creating a large volume of chances, albeit against a Championship side, however Odion Igalho’s brace will have given Solksjaer a welcome dilemma up top, with the Nigerian looking sharp after his move from the Chinese Super League.
Manchester City are easing to second, and whilst they will have one eye on their Champions League clash with Real Madrid the following week, they will target a victory over their cross-city rivals, with a deep enough squad to face Arsenal in midweek.
The huge injury news over the coming days will be whether Kevin De Bruyne is fit and can do the damage once again, but if not, he will give the Red Devils more faith in causing another upset and making it three wins in four over City for the in-form Reds.
City’s curious approach
Pep Guardiola sprung a tactical surprise in the only encounter he has been able to get one over his Norwegian counterpart, as he set up his side without a recognised striker in the League Cup semi-final first leg in City’s previous trip to Old Trafford.
De Bruyne shone for Guardiola in a joint false nine role with Bernardo Silva, as the pair interchanged and became extremely tough to pick up, but with De Bruyne picking up an injury at Wembley, the Catalan coach may not risk the Belgian, and this could make for some interesting tactical tweaks.
Against Real Madrid, the Citizens tackled the issue of Los Blancos’ high defensive line by operating without a recognised striker in the central area, and it has been interesting to see some of their most convincing victories in the games against Real and United have come without Sergio Aguero in the starting line-up, and Gabriel Jesus more willing to drop deep and pull defenders out of position.
I would expect to see Gabriel Jesus start again here. His defensive work rate has been outstanding alongside that of Riyad Mahrez in these games, and the ability to defend from the front and press United early will be crucial to stopping their counter attacking football, particularly if they opt to operate with a back five as is expected.
Space for the Citizens out wide
The central areas will be packed out by United, with three centre backs, plus Nemanja Matic and Fred expected to fulfil the holding roles alongside Bruno Fernandes in a more advanced position, so the space for City will be out wide, and creating overloads in these areas, as well as having a forward line willing to run these channels to stretch the defence will be crucial.
This is where Gabriel Jesus could be key, with his movement into the channels out of possession, as well as willingness to drop off and allow runners from deep to move into the spaces beyond him proving key. This was an avenue City exploited excellently against Aston Villa last weekend, and could be the key again here.
Foden a key cog?
Phil Foden could replace De Bruyne, and his Man of the Match display didn’t go unnoticed with a quick chatter surrounding an England call-up.
His movement off the ball when the strikers dropped off allowed overloads out wide, and he was often the subject of long, cross-field balls from Oleksandr Zinchenko, and these excellent switches of play is something to look out for.
Assisting the first goal, he shone on the right flank, and coming up against Luke Shaw and Brandon Williams, he will be confident of causing problems once again, and is something to watch out for if he starts.
He could potentially be switched flanks, going up against Aaron Wan-Bissaka to make room for Mahrez, with Bernardo Silva moving centrally alongside Rodri and Ilkay Gundogan, and but he would be equally as effective on this flank, as seen in the victory over Arsenal earlier this season.
January arrivals make impact for United
From United’s point of view, they can now call on two January signings in Fernandes and Igalho compared to the first three meetings, and how this impacts upon Solksjaer sets up his side awaits to be seen. The pair offer a different dynamic to and could allow United to play more on the front foot, with more creativity and more aerial threat respectively.
Solksjaer has set up his side to defend in a back five against the Premier League’s top sides this season, utilising their pace on the counter, and after setting up his side in the same vain against Chelsea earlier in February to great success, I expect to see him take this approach again.
United will look to contain the wide threat from City by putting Williams up against Kyle Walker’s energy, which allows Luke Shaw to move into the channel and help double up against either Mahrez or Foden as alluded to. This is how they kept Reece James quiet against Chelsea, whilst also offering the attacking threat on the counter.
Given both are comfortable as a wing back, they would interchange roles, covering one another, and this made it particularly hard for Chelsea’s wingers and defenders to cope, not knowing which player to track, and often leaving them left with an overload out wide.
But I do believe City’s attackers are a more organised pressing unit. The concern for City, as seen in a number of clashes this season including against United, was the defensive work of Raheem Sterling, who often leaves his left back exposed, and United could look to target the opposite flank instead.
Anthony Martial in particular will look to make runs into this channel, much like in the Etihad victory, and is something Guardiola will be particularly wary of.
Fernandes an upgrade in both boxes
Bruno Fernandes has an important defensive duty, but in attack he has a free role as the most advanced of the three central midfielders, and he will be expected to provide the link to support Martial when played in behind, as well as help move into the channels to create overloads in these areas when attacking.
As touched upon above, these wide areas are where City can look most vulnerable, and Solksjaer could be tempted to utilise the aerial presence of Igalho, particularly with the joy Aston Villa had in Samatta’s goal at Wembley, which highlighted a weakness in their defence.
United’s own defence has been impressive this season, and compared to the trip to Stamford Bridge, they will have Victor Lindelof to partner Shaw and Harry Maguire. As well as Eric Bailly did perform, Lindelof is the more reliable of the pair, and will be well suited to dealing with movement of the City front line, whereas Bailly was well equipped to Olivier Giroud’s physical threat.
City themselves could opt for a back five to counter United’s threat in behind, and this is something we have seen Guardiola opt for in the past, allowing Rodri to fluidly step into the backline. However, this is more likely to occur if leading the game and allowing City to control the game from deep.
The added dynamic of United being within touching distance of the top four means the game has taken on a much greater importance to what was expected only weeks ago, and it should be a tactically fascinating encounter.
The betting angles
I do believe both sides have a goal in them, particularly if either side open the scoring early and are forced to press on in search of the equaliser, as both sides possess a devastating counter when required.
Priced at evens (Bet365), Over 2.5 Goals and Both Teams To Score does take appeal, particularly when it has been the case in two of the three encounters this season, especially when considering the attacking threat and defensive vulnerabilities of City.
Given the combination of it being a local derby, Mike Dean refereeing, and both sides more than happy to concede the odd tactical fouls, I was surprised to see you could get each side to have Over 1 Cards at 20/23 (Bet365).
Counter-attacks will be cynically stopped, and there is always the risk the game can boil over. Factor in Dean’s willingness to hand out yellow cards, epitomised by booking Mateo Guendouzi for a sarcastic placing down of the football on Monday night, it is too good a price to turn down.