Centre stage: Manchester derby preview
16:44, 21 Oct 2011
Top spot is likely to be decided through the middle, writes Miguel Delaney of a game that has only escalated in stakes yet again
Since 1 September 2008, the Manchester derby has been all about escalation. And that’s not just in terms of City’s transfer market payments or the fact that, on that day, they eventually signed a Brazilian instead of a Bulgarian.
In the time since, every meeting has brought a bigger description, an even grander sense of importance: the richest Manchester derby ever; the Manchester derby that could decide United’s title challenge; the Manchester derby that could decide City’s Champions League chase.
And, in truth, that’s likely to be the case until the two clubs meet in a European final. So get used to the heightening hyperbole.
In saying that, this really does feel like a genuinely decisive landmark derby.
First – quite literally – there’s the fact that City are looking down on second-placed United from the top of the table. That hasn’t happened since 1977-78. And it’s the first time that both of them have been up there since 1967-68.
As has been brought up ahead of every meeting since the Abu Dhabi group bought the club, Manchester City won 3-1 at Old Trafford on that day in March 1968. Famously, it set up their last league title win.
A similar result this weekend would certainly go some way to finally seeing City win another.
But the game itself will also help answer a fair few questions about Roberto Mancini’s team in general.
Because, as evolved and as assured as they’ve often appeared this season, reasonable doubt about City still remains.
For a start, it’s still open to question whether a recently assembled team can win a title in their first challenge together. As we’ll come to later, this City side have also had a few issues with mentality when it comes to going down to the wire with United.
Secondly, City’s surge to the top hasn’t exactly been overly demanding yet. Other than a trip to a relatively depleted Spurs team – who they admirably tore apart – Mancini has generally enjoyed eminently winnable away games while building up their home form. Looking at last year’s table, the average position of the teams City have faced has been 12th. By contrast, for United it’s ninth including all the rest of last season’s top six.
To give City credit, though, they’ve done much more than they’ve been asked against every one of those teams except Fulham. In short, they haven’t just beaten teams. They’ve battered them. At present, their goal average is an exceptional 3.38 per game – 27 in eight matches.
But the exact opposition City have faced also raises deeper questions about how equipped their formation is for such decisive steps against the top teams.
Mancini, as barely needs to be stated, is a manager who starts every challenge by first of all arranging his defence. As Nigel De Jong told Daniel Taylor for this piece on the two clubs’ defences, “He has come from a country where defence is number one. That’s what he preaches. That is always his message: ‘Make sure we don’t concede, realise that a clean sheet is holy’.”
As an opposition manager – and a very attacking one at that – Roberto Martinez elaborated on this.
“When they have the ball, they always have five or six bodies behind it. Even if the movement is flexible they always look very solid.”
And “solid” is certainly the word. Regardless of the situation – heavy wins or tough defeats – City almost never stray from this fixed “back six” formation.
The other side of this, obviously, is that they only have four in attack.
And, because of the quality of that attack – Sergio Aguero, David Silva, Edin Dzeko, Samir Nasri – this effective two-tiered formation hasn’t really been an issue in their early Premier League games.
As Michael Cox notes, City have become used to playing against opponents who sit deep in the final 25 yards of the pitch and soak up pressure.
Because of the contrast in the quality of City’s attack and the poverty of opposition defences – particularly Bolton, Wigan, Fulham, Blackburn and, on the day that was in it, Tottenham’s – the reduced space hasn’t been much of a factor. It generally just took a touch of genius from either Aguero or Silva to produce enough of an opening. And, because of the opposition’s withdrawal, they didn't need a central passer to get the ball to those attackers. The pattern of play means they generally have it anyway.
But, against better sides, the limits of this two-tiered approach have been seen.
Essentially, City are a broken team – in a structural sense. There is a gap between rigid back six and fluid front four.
When facing superior defences, they lack the type of Xabi Alonso style midfielder who can link the two sections and also produce through-balls to pierce defences. In short, they often don’t have the personnel to provide their front-loaded attack with the ball in tighter games – as we saw against Bayern Munich.
At the other end, when facing better attacks, that gap can be susceptible to quick breaks. That was ruthlessly exposed by Napoli.
And the problem for City this weekend? United have perfect that counter-attacking approach over the last five years. And that’s both with and without Cristiano Ronaldo’s pace.
The only thing is that United have midfield issues of their own this weekend. And we don’t even know if Ferguson will set his team up in that kind of tight, taut way.
They certainly didn’t in the Community Shield. And, on the day, United’s new cavalier style still undid City.
But there is one big difference between now and then: the fitness and freshness of United’s team. Especially Tom Cleverley – who has an outside chance of starting on Sunday.
It is astonishing how important Cleverley has become in such a short space of time. Look at it this way: since the young midfielder got injured against Bolton, Ferguson has made significant alterations to the United team.
First of all, the general formation has been much more rigid, defensive and structured. Secondly, Ferguson has been much more reluctant to play Ashley Young and Nani in the same starting line-up. Because of the fact that both wingers are so open and attacking, the manager has instead opted to counterbalance their creativity with either Park Ji-Sung or Antonio Valencia.
From this, it seems fair to conclude that Cleverley’s youthful mix of industry and ingenuity meant Ferguson could do without an extra defensive player when he was in the team. Because the young midfielder covers so much ground and then complements that movement with his passing, United have been able to be a little more carefree than in previous years.
Indeed, Ferguson himself seemed to back this up after Cleverley had dominated a pre-season friendly with Barcelona.
“For a young boy he has a good footballing brain which, when coupled with his energy and ability, makes for a player with a fine future ahead of him... His discipline was terrific, he’s a good passer and has good eyes.”
And the difference can clearly be seen in the numbers and the nature of the games.
Most obviously, United have been much uglier on the eye against Stoke, Norwich and Liverpool. It’s also notable how we haven’t seen the lightning quick one-twos at the edge of the box that so characterised the early games.
Instead, they’ve been much more controlling. Even after the cautious performance at Liverpool that yielded just 44% of the ball, United’s possession has actually improved significantly without Cleverley. They’ve also concede less shots on goal - an alarming stat from the first four games
But the offset, clearly, is that the team is unwilling to take so many chances. And, as such, they’ve also scored less. Up until Cleverley’s last game against Bolton – which United had already taken the lead in – the side had an average of 4.5 goals a game. Since then, it’s 1.75. Even accounting for the thrashing of Arsenal, that’s still a stark difference.
The net effect of all this is that United appear to have lost their early-season zip. And, as such, that gives rise to the perception that City are the form team.
The counterpoint to that, though, is that while United’s style and form might have changed, their unbeaten run hasn’t. Nor has their ability to undo City in the final moments.
The Community Shield was the latest in a long line of games in which United have killed their rivals at the death. And, despite City’s FA Cup final win, that’s a mental barrier Mancini still has to get his team to overcome in the league – in other words, the competition they both really want.
So, for all Ferguson’s tinkering, his ability to eke out such results remains.
But that also adds another intriguing element to Sunday’s game. While the onus is on City to overturn recent history, it’s United who need the win more in the shorter-term. A defeat, after all, would put them five points behind with Chelsea also coming up the rear. Given the relentless early nature of this title race so far, any gap could be as unforgiving as when Jose Mourinho first took over Chelsea.
In that sense, things have certainly escalated.