Another season, and another Manchester Derby set to get underway this Sunday. After a summer of necessary personnel improvements from both teams, the latest derby has an entirely different feeling in its buildup. Ironically, this time last season United entered this tie enduring an inconsistent and shaky start to their premier league campaign, adapting to the rigours of Louis Van Gaal’s system while integrating more than five new signings. United was a work in progress in every sense of the word. This meant lower expectations despite the similar expectancy of a valiant effort in the biggest match in that corner of England. This time around, City face a United team more assured in Van Gaal’s system despite still having some kinks to work out; and also a team with improved balance and quality in key areas and phases of play which has translated into a solid start to the season.
On the blue side of Manchester, the team from the Etihad have had a strong start to the season despite two hiccups versus this season’s giant killers West Ham, and a steadily improving Tottenham Hotspur side. The addition of reigning Bundesliga player of the year Kevin De Bruyne, in particular, has injected a new lethal dimension to City’s game. In De Bruyne, they have an outlet that will directly and consistently rack up numbers (both goals and assists) and Pellegrini will be hoping the young Chelsea reject can offset the absence of Sergio Agüero and, in all likelihood, David Silva.
While last season even some United fans would have expected to lose this game, this new edition of the derby has an air of unpredictability. Both teams, despite being generally consistent, have each had some performances that cover both extremes of the scale from the fantastic to the dismal. United have quite a task to contain the likes of De Bruyne, Toure and the inconsistent but ever dangerous Raheem Sterling; but if Van Gaal can get his defensive tactics right as he has done for most of the season, United could contain a good portion of City’s threat. A large part of this containment will come from who the Dutch manager chooses as his midfield axis. In the game against Arsenal, van Gaal made a grave error. That error was choosing two classy but slow midfielders in Schweinsteiger and Carrick, suggesting that he expected Arsenal to do as they always do versus united. The expectation was likely for Arsenal to hog possession and play in front of the defense while United breaks on the counter. However, with the pace in that Arsenal team and the passing ability in transition, United was put to the sword early and easily. City does not necessarily have the same passing ability in transition as Arsenal but Sterling and Navas offer bags of pace while Yaya Toure is still a powerhouse going forward with the ball and De Bruyne himself is no slouch.
Make no mistake
Van Gaal must ensure he fields an energetic midfield including Schneiderlin and Ander Herrera, with Schweinsteiger or Carrick pulling the strings. Juan Mata must also be restored to the eleven for this same reason as well as being United’s most creative player. This should provide the Red Devils with their best chance of controlling the game which is always the aim of Van Gaal’s philosophy. Van Gaal must also decide whether to use Anthony Martial from the wings as he has in the last two matches, or to trust him in the striker’s role. This could mean giving the seemingly undroppable Wayne Rooney a roaming attacking midfield role.
Given that United has home advantage, United should come away with a crucial but close win as opposed to the near blow out at Old Trafford last season where United won 4-2. Despite the blip against CSKA, United has shown the best ability to learn from defeats and sub-par performances this season and bounce back immediately and they could very well highlight that characteristic again on Sunday in front of what will be a rocking Old Trafford crowd.