It is difficult to know what to expect from the Manchester derby these days. For all that the city’s footballing landscape appears set for the next five years or more, with an ailing former power struggling to strike back against a new ascendant force, this fixture has recently developed a habit of turning the narrative on its head. The away team has won six of the last seven Manchester derbies, often tearing up a lot of ill-conceived match previews in the process.
For an example of how disorientating a game this can now be, take an hour out of your day. First, watch the opening 30 minutes at the Etihad in December, when the speed and incision of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Daniel James marmalised City’s more methodical approach. United have many faults under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s stewardship but the devastation they can wreak on the counter-attack can seem unrivalled.
Once that’s done, flip over to the half hour between Bernardo Silva’s goal at Old Trafford back in January and the end of the first half. Never has Manchester’s oft-mentioned ‘power balance’ ever seemed so heavily, emphatically and unwaveringly weighted in City’s favour. The technical brilliance, tactical flexibility and fast, fluid movement of Pep Guardiola’s attacking players stretched the gap between these rivals to a chasm. Those two games were precisely a month apart yet both teams were unrecognisable from one derby to the other.
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There is a natural order of things. City are obviously the superior side at present and can point to a 15-point lead over their rivals in the league to prove it. That last visit to Old Trafford did not match the scale of their 6-1 victory in 2011 but it was at times just as embarrassing for United. When reminded of his side’s inferiority that night, Solskjaer admitted that, yes, “our heads went for a spell there”.
But that inferiority has only been reflected in the result every so often. Guardiola knows City can lose on any given derby day and if the spoils were a boxing belt, Solskjaer would currently have it slung over one shoulder. Despite that Old Trafford humiliation at City’s hands back in January, United won the Etihad return leg with a mixture of resolute defending, admirable organisation and clinical finishing.
A 1-0 second-leg victory was not enough for United to reach the Carabao Cup final but it may help provide Solskjaer with a blueprint for this weekend’s Premier League meeting. The United manager can be very conservative when required and, speaking after Thursday’s FA Cup fifth round win at Derby, he sounded more cautious than he usually does when talking tactics.
“When you’re at home and you have to open up against a team like Man City, they will exploit that if you’re not 100 per cent. Sometimes being at home with your fans, you want to show them what you can do and beat your opponent, and sometimes you open too many spaces,” Solskjaer said. He wants his players to strike a delicate balance between taking the initiative while still remaining defensively sound.
And though Guardiola has a reputation for surprising line-ups and experimental formations, Solskjaer can be just as unpredictable. United tested a diamond shape at Goodison Park last week to maximise the abilities of Bruno Fernandes and their new signing excelled. In the last derby, Solskjaer deployed a three-man defence with Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood asked to stretch the play as a strike partnership. And the league win at the Etihad in December came courtesy of Solskjaer’s tried-and-tested 4-2-3-1. “I’m sure we have an element of surprise, that’s not an issue,” he said.
It is that new-found flexibility in shape and system which has helped United put together a nine-game unbeaten run, dating back to that dreadful home defeat to Burnley. They have conceded just twice in the time since, while scoring 22 goals at the other end. Nobody is getting carried away with themselves. At least four of their opponents in that run have been of a significantly lower standard. Still, their form is encouraging.
But even when considering United’s improvement of late, it is hard not to fancy a City victory. It was once a rarity that United would start an Old Trafford derby as underdogs. It is standard nowadays and a price of 4/1 for a home win does not even feel especially generous. Since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, City have finished a total of 91 points ahead of their historic rivals. Maybe this is the moment when that aching gulf in quality between the two clubs is suddenly, brutally realised.
Then again, maybe not. The recent tendency for away teams to win favours City but the tendency of these games to go against expectation suggests United stand a chance. Perhaps the only safe prediction to make about the Manchester derby nowadays is that it will be eventful, entertaining and anything but predictable.
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