The Manchester Derby is the big Premier League game this weekend and it will be as tactically intriguing as ever as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer pits himself against Pep Guardiola’s City for the fourth time this season.
Both sides come into the game in good form, with the hosts, United, hoping to strengthen their Champions League hopes with a win over City, who’s European ban (pending appeal) has given Solskjaer’s men fresh hope of regaining their place amongst the European elite.
The Red Devils are unbeaten in their last nine in all competitions and should have belief that they can make that ten against City on Sunday. Especially as the arrival of Bruno Fernandes in the January window has given the side a much-needed injection of creativity and verve, and the results have duly started to come.
As for visitors, their form is strong too. They’ve won their last five games, played across four competitions, and are starting to look more like the side that won the Premier League title in the last two seasons with every game and victory.
Sunday’s tie will be the fourth of the season between the two juggernauts, with United winning twice at The Etihad, although still dropping out of the League Cup semi-finals thanks to City’s 3-1 win at Old Trafford in the first leg.
Starting with the hosts, Solskjaer returned to the diamond in midfield that brought him the early success in the very beginning of his tenure at Old Trafford at Everton last weekend. It would be no surprise to see him revert to this again against City, although trying to predict his starting shape this season has been a thankless and largely unsuccessful task.
The arrival of Fernandes gives the Norwegian flexibility and some much-needed creativity in the middle of the park. His goalscoring prowess also allows United to play with the split strikers that basically secured Solskjaer his job last season, and we could see that at Old Trafford this weekend. Odion Ighalo’s double against Derby on Thursday night has thrown him right into contention and the Nigerian could partner Anthony Martial up top.
It was the youngster Mason Greenwood who filled the wide forward role against Everton but in Ighalo and Daniel James, Solskjaer now has a depth of options up top. With Ighalo being the most traditional striker at his disposal, it will be interesting to see how he’s deployed if he’s given the nod after his brace at Derby.
One area of the park where United don’t have such depth is in the centre of the defence. Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof did admirably well against Derby but City are a different kettle of fish and Solskjaer will be praying captain Harry Maguire can play through a rolled ankle. The 27-year-old injured his ankle in training during the week and his manager is hopeful his captain will be fit to lead out his side at Old Trafford. While United will be hopeful of having their strongest centre half fit ahead of the game, Pep Guardiola doesn’t have that luxury, with Aymeric Laporte missing out with an injury of his own.
The ex-Athletic Bilbao defender sustained a hamstring injury in the 2-1 win over Real Madrid and will be missing for a month. The loss of Laporte has been obviously felt for Pep’s City this term, with the side often looking vulnerable without him. One such example of their defensive frailties without Laporte was the first Manchester derby of the season.
City failed to cope with United’s pace on the counter at The Etihad in December, and although United will be without their tormentor-in-chief from that day, Marcus Rashford, The Red Devils ran riot in a 2-1 win that flattered City. City were carved open on the break that day and will put measures in place to make sure that doesn’t happen again this weekend.
The use of tactical fouls by Guardiola’s men is one of the worst kept secrets in football and should be clear to see on Sunday once again. This makes card betting particularly interesting, with the likes of Fernandinho, Kyle Walker, Ilkay Gundogan and Rodri all likely to take it in turns to stop any potential United counters. Gundogan has been particularly fond of a card this season, picking up a booking every 215 minutes this season and at 2.10 (Bet365) to be booked, the German could be a value bet.
One dilemma on the hands of Guardiola is who to start up top. Gabriel Jesus did well against Real Madrid but it’s hard to overlook Sergio Aguero’s record in Manchester derbies. The Argentinian is currently on nine goals in this fixture and is close to breaking Wayne Rooney’s record of 11 goals in the derby. He’s 15/4 (Bet365) to score two or more on Sunday if you’re looking for a longer odds bet and fancy Aguero to at least match Rooney’s record.
The quality of chances that Aguero receives on Sunday will greatly depend on the fitness of the Premier League’s top assister, Kevin De Bruyne. The Belgian will face a late fitness test ahead of the game and his presence could make or break not just Guardiola’s game plan but their potential for success at Old Trafford.
As mentioned, card betting could be a good market at Old Trafford with City unlikely to take as many risks with United’s speed on the counter as they did in the first league meeting. It will be down to the usual suspects for City to stop these attacks before they start and even though United are without Rashford they still have a great arsenal of weapons to hurt City with on the break. With over 4.5 match cards at 1.61 (Bet365) it could be worth a dabble, particularly if Solskjaer lets his two most forward attackers stay up the park while City have the ball.
Aguero’s great record in this fixture can’t be ignored either. The Argentine will be hopeful of taking his tally into double figures, particularly if Maguire isn’t there, or wary of his dodgy ankle, and can’t marshal a United defence that can looked exposed at times. The mercurial forward is 1.90 (Bet365) to score anytime, not bad for a striker of his class.