There have been three occasions on which Manchester City has visited Old Trafford with the clubs occupying the top two spots in the Premier League. Yet, the latest instalment has an entirely different narrative to it than those that proceeded.
Ahead of United’s infamous 6-1 defeat at the hands of Roberto Mancini’s side in 2011 the teams had set a frightening pace in the Premier League, with just a two points separating the sides. Two years later, there was another win for Mancini, although the Blues arrived at Old Trafford 15 points adrift of United, who had all but wrapped up the title in Sir Alex Ferguson’s farewell year.
In September last year Old Trafford hosted the closest incarnation of this particular trio, the first derby under José Mourinho and Pep Guardiola. However, with the campaign only three weeks old and both teams level on points the discussion largely surrounded the clash of managers, and not the impact victory might have on a title race.
This time round there is no such parity as the blue half of Manchester arrives with a daunting eight point lead. Guardiola’s high flying team has shown more steel than style in recent games, yet the ball remains firmly in the Blues court ahead of Sunday’s fixture. It may only be early December, but it is hard to escape the feeling that the outcome of this weekend’s derby will have a significant impact on United’s ability to put together a title challenge.
The usual circus has followed the build up, of course. There have been plenty of column inches devoted to team comparisons, combined XIs, and debate on the balance of power. Mourinho has played ball and provided the tabloids with a tasty headline too.
“The one thing I don’t like a lot is that they lose their balance very easily. A little a bit of wind and they fall,” he chirped in a comment that echos Arsene Wenger’s sentiments about Raheem Sterling last month. It should be noted that Mourinho also hailed City’s qualities and the club’s “fantastic coach,” but it felt like a subtle hint to referee Michael Oliver. Mourinho knows as well as anybody that the game could hinge on a key referring decision. Given Mark Clattenberg’s recent indulgent admission about his varying referring standards the United manager has every right to be concerned.
All of that aside, United’s task remains clear, even if the tactical approach is up for debate. The Reds must halt City’s momentum and in the process build a platform on which to mount a title assault – though opinions differ on what result will satisfy that goal.
There is an argument to say that United needs three points, should start on the front foot and, buoyed by the fluidity of recent attacking performances, can exploit the chinks in City’s defensive armour. Then again, last week’s performance at the Emirates also provides a blueprint: soak up pressure when required and look to produce clinical counter-attacks. As with Arsenal, City’s attacking intent and marauding full-backs should leave room to exploit.
There are two important factors may stifle any repetition of United’s performance in north London. First, City possesses an even more potent attack than an Arsenal side that had 31 attempts on United’s goal. Then, importantly, Paul Pogba will be watching from the stands – and he was the key man in leading United’s effective transition from defence to attack at Arsenal.
After all, Pogba’s impact has been phenomenal this season. He has nine goals and assists in 12 games, but his positive influence on the team’s approach is even more central than his contribution to goals alone.
The accusation that Mourinho tends towards pragmatism is often levelled against the Portuguese. Yet, if there is ever a time to be relatively pragmatic, it is surely now. Pogba’s absence, together with his probable replacement – one of Ander Herrera or Maroune Fellaini – may even force Mourinho’s hand. On Sunday it is likely to mean developing an alternative game plan after the loss of Mourinho’s most influential player. There’s a template too: United executed Mourinho’s plan perfectly last season in the 2-0 win over Chelsea. Pogba was also absent for that one.
Of course, few home fans want to see United concede the initiative from the off and produce a performance that is entirely focused on containment, especially at Old Trafford. Whatever his reputation, it is unlikely that Mourinho will resort to such an approach; he knows United has the capability to hurt City. Mourinho may just need to be cute in exploiting United’s strengths, while mitigating against Pogba’s loss. Tactically, it is likely that Mourinho will again use a 3-5-2 system, aiming to be solid at the back, while relying on United’s central front three to cause City damage.
Which brings us back to the question of the ideal result. Mourinho knows that victory is the only result that will afford United genuine title credentials. Yet a draw would not entirely end all hope. It would keep City’s lead at an uncomfortable, but not unattainable length and offer United belief that the busy Christmas period brings an opportunity to chip away at the lead. Mourinho’s infamous ‘must not lose’ mantra may well once more be employed on Sunday. This time it may also be necessary.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]There have been three occasions in which City has visited Old Trafford with the clubs occupying the top two spots. The latest instalment has an entirely different narrative.[/blockquote]
Guardiola knows it too. “Winning, drawing or losing on Sunday, we are not going to win or lose the Premier League,” the Spaniard said this week. He is right, although there is also no doubt this game has the potential to be pivotal. Victory would give City an 11 point lead at the top and deal a significant psychological blow to the club’s nearest rival. Draw and City will keep United at arms length, while at worst ceding two points to other rivals.
It leaves the thought that Guardiola might well be happy with a tough of pragmatism, although never to the extent that Mourinho evidently enjoys. After all, Guardiola is a man who apparently loses sleep over the thought of Nathan Redmond doing anything defensive.
On Sunday, it is Mourinho’s approach that will dictate the narrative.