The stage is set, the previews are written and the weekend draws near. Sunday promises much with the season’s first proper instalment of the ‘Mancunian Classico’, but a question lingers over whether it can possibly deliver the game our exaggerated expectations demand. Compared to the fearsome sprint starts made by both City and United in the season’s opening weeks, the two teams have lost some of their early momentum and focus in recent games and for differing reasons.
There’s a sense over at the Etihad that, regardless of their current position at the top of the Premier League, Mancini isn’t entirely in control of his own players. The actions of Carlos Tevez, the self-perpetuating pantomime, may not be a valid stick with which to beat the Italian manager with, but Edin Dzeko’s recent regression and a reliance on individual genius to cover their still brittle, fair weather group harmony raises questions over his regime.
It won’t be until the middle of December that City find themselves in amongst a heavy patch of fixtures against the other ‘big sides’ in the league, but Sunday offers us a 90 minute preview to see just how much of a team they have become. Mancini may set the match day formation and pick the team, but on their good days, City have looked like a squad able to manage itself, solving their creative problems on the pitch between themselves.
They are, as the modern cliché goes, a team of ‘big personalities’, most of whom have arrived for reasons other than the culture, ethos or history of the club. One wonders whether their collective mask will slip once again, as it did in Munich, when the going gets a bit tough. When City slip into crisis mode, Mancini looks like a manager clawing at his authority on a knife-edge as the collective disintegrates into dissenting individuals. This weekend’s derby gives him and his team, the perfect opportunity to show their true mettle and unity in their first big domestic test of the year at Old Trafford.
The origins of United’s dipping form linger in other sources. Injuries have blunted Sir Alex’s side’s early season potency and stability at the back, rattling the red’s infamously solid defences. Without a consistent back-line, not one defensive selection has remained intact throughout successive matches so far this season, it’s been a case of reshuffles at every turn. For a unit that relies on the familiarity and coherency of its personnel to degree of a team’s defence, this lack of regularity has seen United concede 111 shots in seven games. Considering United have only conceded six goals in that time is testament to the determination and talent of the make-shift back-lines who have picked up the slack in the meantime.
With his goal seemingly under siege, David De Gea has taken the opportunity to finally dispel the bafflingly absurd preconceptions that were pinned against him on arrival in England (he’ll probably always be labelled as the ‘dodgy doughnut dropper’ by the idiot mob). In fact, he has made the most saves of any keeper in the league thus far with 36 stops at a save success rate of 85.71%, another league-high stat. With his seemingly unflappable and calm demeanour, and an impressive away performance at Anfield under his belt, United are in safe hands come derby day. The kids alright!
Shaky rearguard foundations have not been helped by the injured absence of Tom Cleverley in midfield. His energy, tenacity and drive has been sorely missed during this lay off. United’s other midpark dynamo, Anderson, who has almost looked like a match winner when playing alongside Cleverley, looks inconsistent once more without the emerging Englishman by his side. With his match fitness far from guaranteed for Sunday, Ferguson may have to opt for a more conservative midfield in an attempt to combat the indomitable Yaya Toure and co. This could mean packing the centre with Carrick and Fletcher alongside either Giggs or Anderson, and therefore prompting a 4-5-1 line-up at home. Not the sort of tactics United fans, hungry for bragging rights over the blues, will be wanting. As it stands however, City hold the advantage in the middle of the park.
The wide match up out wide is a different story however. With Nani, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia, United have perhaps the strongest line-up of wingers in the league, with Rooney able to drop back and metamorphosis the front-line and attacking channels at will. In comparison, City’s wing threats lack width, with their attackers preferring to cut and drift inside. United’s wide-men will look to stretch and tear their opponents with real pace and width, contorting City’s shape to create the space for those deadly, incisive runs; a hallmark of Fergie’s current crop when they’re on form.
Looking to the ‘goals for’ column of the league table and you would hope the statistical omens bode well for an end-to-end feast of frantic, attacking football. Much depends on the commitment of both managers to go for all three points however. United look rather weak at the moment, especially after their recent run of draws and unconvincing wins, and City might look to their future clog of big games and see now as the perfect opportunity to bank some early points against their main rivals.
On the other hand, United have been building towards this game for some time. Fergie’s usual press room tactics of dismissal and downplay are as transparent as they are predictable, and this is the biggest game of United’s season so far. Sir Alex’s recent line-ups against Liverpool, Otelul and Norwich suggest he’s played a long game of preparation and planning in readiness for Sunday’s encounter. Caution is likely temper his approach.
If Mancini and City go for it though, as Chelsea did, they will be the greatest defensive test United have had to face this season, especially now that Aguero looks fit enough to play a part. As in any tight, high pressure ‘big game’, it could all come down to individual brilliance or incompetence. Aguero is a big man player, and an upgrade on Tevez, who often sucked up far too much of City’s play, regardless of his well-constructed ‘team player’ mystique. Mancini’s men are a far more dangerous and multi-faceted outfit now that their attacking play has been spread out across the team.
Rooney is undoubtedly United’s ‘main man’, but his team’s true unpredictable match winner is the Portuguese, Nani. His penetrating dribbles, quick shooting and sheer arrogance will provide United with some powerful inroads to City’s defensive lines, hopefully creating panic and disarray in his wake. A mention should also be given to the potential striking partners of both teams. The likes of Hernandez, Balotelli, Dzeko, Welbeck and Berbatov are all potential game changers capable of offering left-field alternatives to either team’s plan A.
Sunday could be the defining point of either side’s early campaigns, with both clubs entering the clash unbeaten in the league. Whilst Mancini has the weapons to hurt United, going for broke would risk the safety of a draw at Old Trafford, a place that so often inspires Rooney and co. into their full effect pomp.
Regardless of tactics, formations or form, the fans from both sides of Manchester will want their teams to fly through each other with all guns blazing. The football needs to be played at its loudest, fullest volume to drown out the noisy neighbours and deafen the pompous red sods over the road, respectively. Who dares wins.