It’s a clash of titans, a clash of two of the best managers in the modern game. They share a city, but battle fiercely for supremacy. It’s a battle with significance for the here and now, for their own legacies, and for control of the Premier league. One aims to make it a one horse race to the Premier league, while the other endeavours to drag back their absurdly noisy neighbours. The managers are Josep Guardiola Sala of Manchester City and José Mário dos Santos Mourinho Félix of Manchester United. The former has shaped his sky blue clad charges into an irresistible force to charge against the immovable object that is the red half of Manchester. Will this paradox be tested on Sunday? Will a winner of this particular clash emerge to make sense of it all, and who will add another positive stroke against their name in the claim to be the best manager in the world?
The Red Devils
A crucial blow in the clash has been dealt before a ball has been kicked. United’s difference maker and best outfield player, Paul Pogba, picked up an unfortunate suspension for a tackle on Héctor Bellerín in their big clash last week. While Mourinho’s approach would almost certainly have been cripplingly defensive against a team with ball handlers of the quality that Man City possesses anyway, Pogba’s absence takes away the one player that may be able to break the monopoly and also provide an inspired moment for the most successful club in the Premier league era. It shouldn’t be so, but it is so.
6 – Paul Pogba has provided six assists in his 12 games in all competitions for Man Utd this season, as many as he did in his 51 games for them last term. Selfless. pic.twitter.com/V4yloNJoJD
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 5, 2017
Mourinho’s teams have never been too focused on winning the possession battle. It may be a consequence of his team’s overwhelmingly superior quality, but it has never been a main priority for the man who said it’s stupid not to play counterattacking football. The key component of that word is its first seven letters, counter. Counter implies reaction; it implies reacting to what your opponent has done or has set up as a major component of its construct.
That is exactly what Jose is expected to do in this clash, provided it isn’t postponed by inclement weather. Aside from Pogba, the other players in the United squad who could be considered above the norm passers and ball handlers are Juan Mata and Michael Carrick. The former could start if United harbor any thoughts of ending with more than 40% possession. However, the tactic could be to bully the life out of a shorter team, at least from the midfield up than the potentially monstrous United. Marouane Fellaini becomes a prime candidate if this is the tactical thought process.
It’s probably the tactic that will be employed, one where the ball gasps for respite from being punted aerially for the Belgian pair Romelu Lukaku and Fellaini to receive. Lukaku has hit a prolonged rough patch, at least in scoring. His overall play has actually been better than we’ve come to see from the former Everton main man. Fellaini is a big game man, a man for the games where Jose knows his team is up against it. That very reason is why Jesse Lingard is a certain starter, barring injury.
Expect the Red Devils to play a game of accretion in a bid to stifle the life out of City, for Jose would very much love a one nil victory. In fact, he may very well be hoping for it and will be planning accordingly. He does have one of the very best in the world manning the goal and the return of his most physical and best defender is likely. It will be defensive, likely ugly, but with a purpose and an end game. Machiavellian to the core, Jose and his charges will be up against a rampaging Man City.
Man City have been shattering records all season and there seems to be no intention to ease up on the gas. Instead, they intend to go for the jugular. A ruthlessly rampant campaign thus far could be severely tested by a United team that recognises the must-win nature of this clash.
Man for man, City blow United out of the water. The weight of spending in the summer to fit Guardiola’s philosophy after the disappointments of last season, coupled with the execution of plans and the levelling up of many of their charges, Kevin de Bruyne and Raheem Sterling immediately come to mind, and makes them firm favourites for the Premier league crown and one of four serious contenders for the Champions league. Maybe not so noticeable is the David Silva effect. The Spaniard was supposed to be passing the mantle on to De Bruyne, but his wizardry had other plans for us. Together with the Belgian, they make a claim to be the best central midfield pairing in the world. That’s not bad for two attacking players by nature and design. Such is the brilliance of Guardiola and such is their dominance that both make sense in a midfield three.
72 assists 🅰️
640 chances created 🔵
41 goals ⚽️
— bwin (@bwin) December 3, 2017
The best antidote for the heavy dose of austerity that Mourinho will want to serve to the aesthetics of the clash will be an early goal. That United will miss their best player would make the situation direr, especially if that goal comes really early. The threat from wide cannot be taken lightly, both on the flanks and in the half space. Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling have been even hotter than their United counterparts Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford, and much of the joy that both sides enjoy could be from those channels. The difference is that, for United, it is more important that those two shine than for City. The threat for United from central could be very muted. Man City also have a clear advantage in two strikers that are in better form than the Man United front men by some way.
This is a derby, however, involving two fierce rivals, and neither will want to concede anything. It’s almost certain to be physical, bruising, and intriguing all at the same time. Man City are the firm favourites and Man United face an uphill battle. Smart money goes with City, but those who believe pragmatism will stifle the hottest team in Europe won’t rule out a United victory. The only certainty is that the storylines will engage us before, during, and after. Bring it on.