For United the situation is simple. Avoid defeat (i.e. they have two potential chances, draw or win the match), and the prospect of a 20th title is looking very tasty indeed. By default, City must chase the game (and seek to control it) in search of the three points required to re-position themselves at the top of the league before a tricky trip to Newcastle. The key question for both managers on Monday seems to be whether to play two or three central midfielders.
Barry and Toure seem certain to start, and a rejuvenated De Jong is back in favour after a period of isolation. The Dutchman then is fighting it out with Nasri and the seemingly ever-present (against United), James Milner, for a place in the starting line-up. A three-man centre would allow Toure to take the initiative further up the field, and also allow Barry to drift laterally; Milner could be used to track Valencia, and support City’s wide attacks; the option of Nasri would add a creative flair which has often been the sole duty of Silva this term (with fatigue as a consequence), and also pose United a threat from a central-left position, perhaps targeting the often, ever so slightly, erratic Rafael (don’t remind him of the penalty decision given by Dean two seasons ago).
Looking back at the last few seasons, United have actually played 4-5-1 very often against City. Since mid-2009, the only times we haven’t started with a 4-5-1 were in the 2010 4-3 and the 1-6 last November. Using 4-5-1 with Dimitar Berbatov as the forward didn’t quite work – he was the lone striker in the dour 2010 league game (0-0) and the following year’s FA Cup semi (0-1). But it works emphatically with Rooney there – the 2010 Carling Cup semi (1-2, 3-1), 2010 away in the league (1-0) and 2011 at home in the league (2-1).
Of course, playing a third central midfielder would mean a shift from the 4-4-1-1 that’s been our default formation since last February. And playing 4-4-1-1 in each Manchester derby this season, we’ve conceded 2, 6 and 2 goals. It is a tough call for Ferguson, because ultimately it goes against his nature to not seek to win the game. Taking away the doubts that surround Nani’s and Evans’ inclusion, the key decision seems to be whether to start Welbeck or Giggs, with the Welshman able to sit adjacent to Carrick in a fairly rigid central role akin to that he purveyed in last season’s Champions League tie with Chelsea.
Giggs offers more experience in crucial games such as these, and can often pop up with a fantastic bit of skill to sway the game – his assists for Hernandez on the last two occasions at the Bridge spring to mind. Welbeck on the other hand, despite the occasional lax finishing, offers a burst of youthful exuberance; a wily attacking brain; superb link-up play between the lines and the ability to drop deep and form a bank of five. Below we look at what United must consider ahead of the game.
Probable teams/ formations
Pressing Issues and learning the lessons from ‘1-6’
Despite all City’s talent, our main danger against them in this derby isn’t one single player, they have too many dangermen to isolate just one. It’s actually a collective tactic: pressing. When intensely applied, pressing has been our undoing against Barcelona (2009, 2011), Athletic Bilbao, Chelsea (2nd half of the league game at Stamford Bridge, 2011), and against City in the 2nd half of the 2011 FA Cup semi. Even against less fancied sides – Wolves 2011, Wigan 2012 – we’ve looked very uncomfortable maintaining the ball when the opponent has got in our faces to harass and try to win the ball back.
Pressing certainly was not how City won in November – that day, they defended deep and hit us swiftly and incisively on the break. But with a midfield that will have powerful operators like Yaya, Milner and (maybe) de Jong, they’re certainly capable of playing that way if they’re on the front foot. As Rob wrote in late 2010, Carrick occasionally has a problem against teams that press intensely – although the occasional wastefulness of Giggs and Sir Alex’s insistence on 4-4-1-1 are often to blame as well. Further, Fergie will want to ensure Silva isn’t given time on the ball in his usual playmaking role from a left side starting position, and this is where Rafael’s tenacity and Valencia’s defensive acumen should come to the fore. United were far too swashbuckling at Old Trafford, often forgetting defensive duties entirely.
Focus on the United way
Calm possession of the football, direct wing-play, ambitious fullbacks – everything United need on Monday, and more. Carrick and Scholes look certain to start. Carrick’s metronome will have to be in working order, and hopefully a week of rest and training will allow Scholesy to recover his fitness after he looked exhausted against Everton. They will try to get on the ball and dictate the tempo – with quick, direct passing out to the wide areas when City look vulnerable, and slower, more intricate interchanges among themselves to cool it down when City seek to be the aggressors. If they can manage both tasks successfully, we’ll be in with a big shout.
Carrick has been getting forward more these days, but I think we’ll see him curtail that instinct and sit much deeper in the midfield, monitoring the runs of Yaya Touré through the middle and Agüero or Tevez when they come deep. He’s done a great job of this before – the 0-0 at the Etihad in late 2010 was one of his finest games defensively, especially in the second half.
Open up the centre
City have played somewhat of a 4-2-2-2 system this season, which essentially means that they have yet to find the desired application in the attacking third, as discussed earlier on in the season. This system offers City a lot of control, and certainly the centre of the park will be a key area with Toure, De Jong/Milner and Barry likely to see a lot of the ball on the night. What this does mean however is that United will have little option but to use the wings to their advantage. By sitting deep, inviting the pressure then ensuring quick transitions from the defence to midfield, (Scholes and Carrick crucial here), United should be able to use the flanks to great effect, giving Valencia and Young (or Nani) the chance to get in behind the fullbacks. City’s congested middle actually requires Clichy and Richards to be a tad more adventurous, and although their link play with Toure and Tevez in particular will be something United will have to watch, this does offer the perfect opportunity to exploit the vacated space.
There is of course a real opportunity for United to stifle City here. Scholes and Carrick in the middle aren’t just reliable but are good at following orders. If they get the ball out wide as quickly as possible they can disrupt City’s own plan – dragging players such as Aguero and Tevez out wide when they’d much prefer to remain centrally. Should possession change hands with Aguero and/or Tevez wide, the chances are that United will be in a much comfier position to repel any City attack.
Take advantage of fluid front four approach
The variety and quality of play we get from our wide men is on par with any other team in the world, and no matter who City put out as their fullbacks, our wingers will fancy their chances. Clichy and Richards did very well against our wide players in November, but couldn’t deal with them in January’s FA Cup tie (a pivotal moment for Fergie’s men). It is essential that United use the ball well once in possession out wide. City will be aware of the danger United pose when Rooney is attacking from deep and the wide players are inverting their approach close to the penalty area. With Rafael and Evra are two of the finest exponents of attacking fullback play, and the prospect of Welbeck drifting laterally, United should seek to gain the numerical advantage on the counter. The ‘fluid front four’ was something we pre-empted Fergie might try this season as early as the Community Shield, and at times, the results have been devastating.
Despite a recent blip (and the fact that opposing teams are taking extra care to double up on him) Valencia should start on the right, and he can give Clichy nightmares with his directness. The Ecuadorian has become more dangerous in the final third this season, often choosing the narrower route to goal, providing a great many of his assists from closer to the penalty area, despite his excellent crossing ability. He is better able to link the play between the midfield and forward lines, and works tremendously hard in defensive transitions, which could be key with Silva likely to drift inside from a left starting position.
On the left-hand side, Young doesn’t have the unpredictable genius of Nani, but he offers better defensive protection – which is important when City might try to overload that flank. In addition, his link-up play with Evra is remarkably good, combining fantastically with the United captain at every opportunity. Evra’s bursts from the halfway line, (and high interceptions) are crucial to United’s attacks in that zone, and often, at the very least, act as a decoy for Young’s movement and creativity inside. If Richards plays ahead of the more positionally aware Zabaleta, expect this duel to be key.
The prospect of Nani coming off the bench to add verve to our attack is a big positive wth tired legs after 60-65 minutes. Last season Nani hit double figures for both goals and assists, but his output has been disrupted by injury this time around. Nani seems sharp and fresh of late, and it will be a pity if he has picked up a knock in training; he can be a real threat coming inside on either foot, and he has added a greater finesse to his play from a central position.
The most fascinating aspect of all of United’s attacking movement is what it might mean for City. Rooney and Welbeck’s interchanging of positions will mean that Lescott and Kompany have to be wary about not getting dragged out of position – a lot of emphasis will have to be placed on Barry most likely to sit even deeper. Meanwhile, both fullbacks will have to have done their homework – Valencia has been creating more overlapping opportunities for Rafael than ever before whilst on the other side, both Nani and Young can go both in or out. However, arguably the most important players to watch are Scholes and Carrick, both of whom have started to make more late runs into the penalty area (City won’t have forgotten Scholes’ late unmarked run in April ’10!). It’s feasible to imagine and believe that United can seriously unsettle a usually untested City defence.
Any room for a United selection surprise?
In short, no, probably not. However, if Fergie fancies a surprise it’s likely to come in the middle. Yes, there are unresolved issues in terms of Nani or Young; Smalling or Rafael but they’re not necessarily game-changers. If United want to go defensive and try to keep the game tight until an hour’s gone then Fergie may go for a 4-5-1, sacrificing most likely Welbeck in favour of another midfielder. Jones is an option, playing in front of Carrick and Scholes as something of a box-to-box physical destroyer – yet, his lack of form, dodgy ball control and passing should surely make this unlikely in a game where possession is paramount. Cleverley and Giggs are somewhat safer options although the former may not be fit enough and the latter has been wasteful lately. The final option is Park. He’s hardly been used lately and may well leave this summer but in the big games, he’s often been picked. His tactical discipline, work-rate, and ability to pop up in the right places to score are all factors that could see him selected. The flip-side would be that United would lose a bit of quality in attack. Don’t expect a surprise but the options for Fergie are certainly there.
It is likely that United will play a familiar blend of 4-4-1-1 and 4-2-3-1, meaning that Rooney is asked to adopt the ‘number 10’ (or advanced ‘8’) role, and dropping deeper than would be expected in order to stifle City’s attacks from deep. Far from being a negative tactic however, 4-5-1 has allowed us to control the midfield and attack City in every game we’ve used it in. Played in its strictest sense (with a three-man centre), it brings the best out of Rooney: He scores lots of goals from the lone striker or “false nine” position, while managing as always to get involved in attacking approach work as well as the defensive side of play. With so much space in front of him – and no strike partners to crowd the space ahead – it’s the best outlet for his high-energy style.
With Silva, Barry and Toure all certainties to start, Mancini will have to select one from De Jong, Milner and Nasri, with Agüero and Tevez likely to be the preferred partnership up front once again (with Balotelli from the bench). Both Argentines like to drop off from forward positions, and United will have to be extra vigilant in between defence and midfield. With Milner, it is arguably City’s best mix of passing, energy and trickery, and the midfield battle is probably the key battle of the game.
Can Rooney perform in a deeper role as he did the last time at Eastlands?
Will United be able to cope with the high press?
Can United take advantage in wide scenarios?
Will Fergie stick to his principles and start the effervescent Welbeck in a 4-4-1-1 or will he call upon his trusty talisman Giggs, who has not started three consecutive games from the bench since August?
Will Mancini choose industry over invention?
Will either Nasri or Balotelli feature?
What type of game will we see? An adventurous approach from both managers and a thriller like the 4-3? Or a tight affair and 4-5-1? (Scholesy header, 0-1 anyone?)
Nik: 0-1 (Nani 78)
Rob: 1-2 (Nani 26, Agüero 45+1, Rooney 90+4)
Doron: 2-2 (Welbeck 17, Aguero 56, Tevez 61, Giggs 84)
Man in the middle: Andre Marriner
Marriner has a calm and methodical approach, with excellent application of law and control of a game. One of a number of referees who (rightly) gives penalties as a last resort (clear and obvious infringement). Suffered a minor embarrassment earlier in the season when he failed to spot an infringement from a Blackburn Rovers corner routine, but has since responded in kind with some excellent performances at home and in Europe. Left Pulis perplexed, and Neville grinning, by failing to show a second yellow card to Sky’s best pundit at the Britannia Stadium last season.