We’ve got our first Manchester Derby for the season coming up this weekend and it may provide a good indication of which team is in the best position to stake a claim for the 2016/17 title. Last season’s Manchester derbies were decent games but there was little at stake since neither team was truly contesting the title, making the clashes between Manuel Pellegrini and Louis van Gaal less dramatic affairs. This season, however, marks the return of Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho’s charged rivalry as they helm Manchester City and Manchester United respectively. These are arguably the two best managers currently active, and easily the best managers of the last decade; their eventful personal history will add an extra bit of spice to these fixtures. They established their famous rivalry when Mourinho was in charge of Real Madrid and Guardiola’s Barcelona waylaid the capital’s club in their search for trophies. We’re going to have a look at which team is best equipped to claim all three points and open up a lead at the top of the table. Will Guardiola’s dominance continue or can Mourinho pull one over on him?
United have had an exemplary transfer window, making only four signings; Eric Bailly, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba. Despite only adding four names they have resoundingly emphasized quality over quantity, strengthening in key positions that slot straight into their ideal starting XI. City added young English center back John Stones, who arrived from Everton for £50m and skillful German midfielder Ilkay Gundogan from Borussia Dortmund for about half that, as well as veteran Spanish forward Nolito who has impressed in the league so far. United are likely ahead in terms of new recruits, as Eric Bailly has contributed solid defensive performances, Ibrahimovic has notched 3 league goals already and Pogba is giving competent and energetic midfield performances. With that said, both teams’ starting lineups will undoubtedly host the best players in the league in almost all positions and are likely to be fairly even in terms of quality. Small margins will split the two.
Unfortunately both teams have notable absences, Henrikh Mkhitaryan has a thigh injury that will likely keep him out at and Sergio Aguero sustained an unfortunate 3 game suspension in his last game. Both are creative, goal scoring outlets that their respective teams will sorely miss, but fortunately both teams have sufficient quality with which to replace their absentees.
Defence: In isolation United narrowly outmatch City in terms of defensive personnel. The Red Devils have a younger and more physically adept back line, while Guardiola has an uncertain central pairing of Stones and Otamendi and aging, slower full backs that could get caught out on the counter attack. However, United’s defense lacks experience together that may match up badly against a well-drilled City attack.
Midfield: The midfields are about even, Paul Pogba is a talented ball carrier that can find decisive passes but he’ll need the ball to do that. City will be looking to starve United of possession for long periods meaning the opposition midfield is going to have to make all their passes and attacking moves count.
Attack: City have the more fluid and confident attack by a comfortable margin. Their creative forwards like De Bruyne, Sterling, Silva and Nolito are quite a bit more experienced at crafting chances and will rotate possession so comfortably and quickly that opposing defenses have to focus stringently on their positioning to keep potential passing gaps closed. United’s attack features some gifted players but their ability to click as a cohesive unit hasn’t been fully realized yet. Set pieces could yield positive results for United as they have a lot of aerially proficient players.
While they may share certain tactical similarities such as quick pressing, in some ways Guardiola and Mourinho are polar opposites. Guardiola teams focus on involving the entire team, front to back, in their attacking moves, holding onto possession for prolonged periods of time before finding a key pass. Mourinho, though, requires his teams to shift the ball through the lines of play extremely quickly and within one or two touches of the ball, ideally. This bodes well for City because Mourinho’s style generally results in more losses of possession than most managers, especially Guardiola for whom constant possession is a cardinal rule.
A novel introduction we’ve also seen from Guardiola is that he has instructed his fullbacks to sit in central midfield when the team has possession. The result is that the central midfielders who would generally occupy those positions are allowed more attacking freedom and can assist the forwards. The tactical idiosyncrasies favor City as they put the onus on United’s midfield and defense to laboriously keep any gaps in formation closed. It could very much end up being City’s attack vs. United’s defense.
United is at home though which may force City to be more cautious in how much space they open up between their formational lines. Another benefit for the home side is that their fast wide players like Shaw, Martial, Rashford, Lingard and Memphis will have an advantage over City’s slower defenders, meaning United are likely to shift possession to the wide areas when building up their attacks.
Raheem Sterling vs. Antonio Valencia: Sterling has been given a new lease on life in Guardiola’s setup, so far looking worth every penny of his controversial £50m
price tag. Antonio Valencia’s acceleration is formidable but isn’t what it once was, while Sterling can blitz past even the fastest full backs in the league. Valencia will need to track his movement and ensure Sterling isn’t given open space to expose Valencia’s inferior speed. Sterling switches flanks often and should avoid Luke Shaw’s left side since Shaw will likely match his pace and he’ll outmuscle the slight-of-build winger too.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic vs. Nicolas Otamendi/John Stones: At 6’5’’ and a possessing an impressive leap Ibrahimovic has already got the better of other Premier League center backs – most notably Jose Fonte of Southampton and Wes Morgan of Leicester City. Manchester City’s center backs could be criticized for not being quite as robust in the air as the Premier League demands, which might be exploited to good effect by Ibrahimovic who already has a couple of headed goals to his name this season.
Paul Pogba/ Morgan Schneiderlin vs. Kevin De Bruyne/ David Silva: City’s best creative outlet is David Silva, aided and abetted by Kevin De Bruyne. They’re the key players that can hurt opposition defenses that don’t stay compact enough to close off passing spaces. United’s midfield pivots will have to do hard running to make sure the floating creative players in City’s lineup don’t get any free space or time on the ball.
While United will have the advantage of being at home and the Old Trafford crowd will be buoyed by their solid performances of late, Guardiola will arrive knowing the pressure is on United’s still-adjusting defensive line to keep out a talented set of City forwards for a full 90 minutes. United have their own attacking threats, but Eric Bailly is still adapting to the Premier League and Luke Shaw has recently come back from a long-term injury so they could each have a mistake or two in them. It’s a difficult game to call as so many new variables have been introduced to both teams. United have high quality additions like Pogba and Ibrahimovic that will need to step up and show they can perform against high quality opposition. The brimming confidence United are busy developing may take off in such a highly charged game against such key opposition, but the youth and inexperience in the team could also draw a few lapses in concentration.
It’s unlikely to be boring but it is also unlikely to feature a high goal tally, it’s more prone to being a tactical war of attrition where the side making no mistakes comes out on top. Suffice it to say, though, the victor here (if there is a victor) will have made a significant statement in terms of setting the pace for the title race.
Prediction: United 2-1 City