This Sunday, the Etihad Stadium will stage arguably the biggest game of the season so far. Reigning champions Manchester City play host to fierce title rivals Manchester United in what promises to be a heated confrontation. Following last season’s drama, the Manchester derby has a lot more at stake than it has had in previous years. United have a six-point lead at the top within their sights while City could replace them at the summit on goal difference with a victory. The Citizens are enjoying a run of 37 games unbeaten in the league but if anyone can put an end to their streak, it’s a United side whose attack is simply irresistible this season.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s prime transfer coup over the summer, Robin Van Persie has changed the dynamic of the United strike-force. The former Arsenal talisman is the ideal candidate to spearhead an attack and his signing adds that bit of star quality to the side. With 13 goals so far this season, the Dutchman is turning out to be one of Ferguson’s best signings over his 26 year tenure. Owing to his scintillating form, fellow strikers Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck have had to raise their game while Wayne Rooney has flourished in an attacking midfield role.
Van Persie boosts United's attack
City’s defence this season has been far from the water-tight unit they looked like last term. Roberto Mancini’s constant shuffling of his back four hasn’t made things easier and his side have uncharacteristically been vulnerable from set-pieces. United are the top scorers in the Premier League so far with 37 goals from 15 games, outscoring City by nine goals. They have also been the most prolific side from set-pieces in the league having converted 10 chances. The Red Devils will be keen to take advantage of City’s lacklustre defending and will look to gain the upper-hand from set-pieces in particular.
Despite their goal-scoring prowess, United have been far worse than their cross-town rivals in defence. The Reds have conceded 21 goals in the league, second only to Tottenham Hotspur (23) among the teams in the top half of the table. Their attack has constantly been made to compensate for their catastrophic defence. City may not be as prolific as the league leaders at the moment but they have more than the necessary firepower to take down United’s fallible defence.
United's defence has been poor
For that reason, Sir Alex may adopt a more cautious approach while still keeping his goal-scorers on the pitch. Following one of their worst performances in defence against Tottenham at Old Trafford where they conceded three goals, Ferguson opted to utilize a diamond formation against Newcastle United. The system was compact and offered cover to their back four. Ferguson’s men managed to keep a clean sheet and score three goals. The system had already been tested in the Champions League and Capital One Cup but its success in the league earmarked it as a viable option.
United will look to retain that solidarity at the Etihad Stadium but slotting Rooney in behind Van Persie and Hernandez would maintain their goal-scoring threat as well. Rooney already has 11 assists this season from 16 games in all competitions and leads the assists charts in the league as well with 7. His seemingly telepathic understanding with Van Persie is constantly improving and the two are always capable of fashioning a chance together.
There aren’t many games for which Hernandez would be as effective as a starter as he would be from the bench but this may just be one of them if the diamond midfield is employed. The Mexican has the pace and intelligent movement to keep the City back line on their toes. His manner of playing on the shoulder of the last defender discourages the back four from playing a high-line and effectively keeps the entire team just a little further back. If they decide to ignore his threat and play the high-line anyway then he has every chance of getting in behind them. In a game of this magnitude, his clinical nature could be an invaluable asset.
Will Sir Alex revert to a diamond midfield?
The diamond midfield is all the more logical since United are currently short of wingers as well. Antonio Valencia and Nani are still sidelined while Shinji Kagawa who can play wide as well is also ruled out. However, United have looked short of ideas when they have set up without any width. They do keep more possession but they struggle to create clear-cut chances. Hence, it is feasible that Sir Alex could opt to play with width yet.
Their wide play certainly benefited them when they beat Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Ferguson could deploy Rooney on the rank flank as he did in midweek and against Reading as well while Ashley Young could retain his position on the left. The Scot would probably opt for a workman like midfield then. Phil Jones could be used in midfield alongside Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher in the absence of Anderson and Tom Cleverley to ensure that the side have a strong core.
Regardless of the formation Sir Alex chooses to play, the mantra will remain the same – keep it tight at the back and be clinical in attack. He will want his defence to keep their shape and his midfield to work extremely hard while he will expect his attacking players to have enough about them to fashion opportunities between themselves and take the chances when they come by.
Mancini is not one to encourage his side to attack freely in a game of this magnitude while Sir Alex will know that even a point would be a good result at this stage. In all likelihood, this encounter could turn out to be a cagey affair but where these heavyweights are concerned, things are always one tackle, decision or goal away from boiling over. The scars from last season will be fresh in the minds of the United players and they thrive on an opportunity to respond to past grievances. Ultimately this encounter could well be decided by the desire to win from both sides.
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