Stephen Tudor previews the upcoming Manchester derby.
There have been more meaningful Manchester derbies in recent years, ranging from FA Cup and League Cup semi-finals to a seismic spring encounter back in 2012 that essentially decided a title race.
Yet very rarely in this fixture’s long and fractious history has there been so much at stake regarding the shape of things to come for both sides. Very rarely have two separate destinies hung in the balance, each broader than heaven and hell.
Simply put, whoever wins out from 90 fiercely contested minutes at Old Trafford this Saturday will see their season put back on track. Whoever loses is placed on an altogether different path, where the ground is unsteady underfoot and the thicket is thick. Down one direction lies redemption, the other, crisis.
If crisis feels like an exaggerated term when applied to Manchester City it admittedly comes with a significant caveat, it being a crisis of confidence rather than a full-on meltdown as already witnessed at, well, Old Trafford as it goes, but we will come to that.
An inept display against Crystal Palace at the weekend was the sixth time City have failed to score this season which equals the number of blanks they fired throughout all last term, and this naturally leads to conversations being had about their need for a clinical finisher, someone, say in the mould of a Sergio Aguero or a Harry Kane. Granted, Pep Guardiola’s wealth of creative midfielders and wingers do a fine job in sharing around the goalscoring burden – City have had 11 different scorers in the league so far compared to eight apiece for United and Liverpool – and it also needs highlighting that the league champions have retained their ability to blast opponents off the park when the mood suits. On five occasions they have put five-plus goals past demoralised and dismantled back-lines.
City’s lack of a centre-forward means there is often greater value found in backing scorers from elsewhere. Joao Cancelo likes a shot from distance and is +2000 to notch first at the weekend.
But what about the tight games when inferior foes are particularly stubborn? What about in the big games when chances are at a premium? What about in derbies against a team and manager who have previously secured the points and bragging rights by sticking 10 men behind the ball?
Guardiola has pre-empted this concern by dismissing it out of hand following a ruthless thrashing of Brighton. “One day we’ll lose and you’ll ask me, do you need a striker. I bet you whatever you want. I don’t buy this question.” But when a man springs to a defence before an attack is mounted, that suggests guilt, or in this instance an awareness that an issue has substance and a failure to break down United – a team that has kept just two clean sheets in their last 22 games – will only see the conversation louden.
Furthermore, and much more substantially, a defeat at the home of their hated neighbours will likely put City eight points adrift of Chelsea, while in terms of narrative will dramatically have them level on points with a team deemed to be in turmoil.
Solskjaer’s Man United are just three points behind Guardiola’s Man City.
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— DailyTimes Zimbabwe (@DailyTimesZim) October 31, 2021
Should the visitors stumble, they will not go down without a fight. United to win and both teams to score is a very reasonable +650.
However, some believe United could be on the receiving end of another humiliating rout, as endured against Liverpool, and if this happens, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will surely be relieved of his services. Even a slender, closely fought defeat might see him depart so precarious is his position.
Yet a revitalising win at Spurs on Saturday does put a new complexion on this week’s marquee meeting, with United fielding a three-man defence, shored up by the return of Raphael Varane, who watched on in horror from the sidelines as his team-mates shipped 11 goals across his three-game absence. It was a system designed to facilitate a forward double-act with a combined age of 70, and Ronaldo and Cavani didn’t disappoint, showing their immense quality and integrating well. Theirs is a partnership that promises a great deal, even if only for the short-term.
Both CR7 and Cavani are +900 each to give an assist. Plump for the former who has considerably more over their respective careers.
Don’t be surprised therefore if Solskjaer sticks with the same personnel and the same formation, especially as deploying three at the back has worked well for the Norwegian in three derbies, two of them won.
Mention of those triumphs brings us to another source of encouragement for the Red Devils, and one that never fails to surprise, which is Solskjaer’s impressive record against his opposing number; one man demeaned as a glorified PE teacher, the other considered a genuine genius. In their eight meetings, the United boss has won four, drawing another, and what is remarkable about those quartet of ‘upsets’ – in managerial terms at least – is they were achieved with an average of 32.2% possession.
So, we can expect the hosts to play three at the back and anticipate Ronaldo and Cavani starting, picking off the few chances created on the counter in their typically clinical fashion. What we don’t know is if the real Kevin De Bruyne turns up, after leaving his performances to an unfit, out-of-sorts stand-in in recent weeks. We have no conceivable idea either whether one of Guardiola’s wealth of creative talents can suitably impersonate a striker and convert the opportunities carved out from having so much of the ball.
That latter poser will ultimately decide the course of this game and subsequently the course of both club’s seasons. While for supporters, red and blue, it’s the difference between heaven and hell.
United are +335 to win the second half. They have already scored eight goals this term beyond the 80th minute.