Last season, Manchester United faced Manchester City thrice -- twice in Premier League clashes, where the latter emerged victorious both times and once in a FA Cup tie, where the former were the victors. Interestingly, I think one could make the case that United were better in their 1-6 league defeat at Old Trafford than they were in their 0-1 defeat during the reverse fixture at the Etihad. In the 1-6 tie, Jonny Evans was sent off in the 46th minute when the scoreline was just 0-1. However, it all obviously derailed after that as United pushed forward in search of goals with ten-men and City ruthlessly tore the home side apart on the counter. During the title-decider in April, Sir Alex Ferguson took an extremely cautious approach and the Red Devils hardly ever tested Joe Hart. Perhaps the United manager was encouraged to try that approach because counter-attacking proved to be effective during the FA Cup match.
For this derby, though, one in which United enter with a three-point advantage on City, what approach will Ferguson take and what shape will he deploy his side in? The Red Devils have been lethal in attack (sometimes, though, it takes a goal from the opposition to rev up the attack's engines) but their poor shape has resulted in way too many goals being conceded.
In the past decade or so, Ferguson has learned to be pragmatic when he needs to be and it's his former assistant, Carlos Queiroz, that is often praised for this influence. Will the gaffer play to his strengths (all-out attack) and gamble with his weaknesses (poor shape) at the Etihad by having a go at City? Or in contrast, will he tighten up his team's shape, defend deeper, and look to hit the
noisy now 'screaming neighbours' on the counterattack? Both general approaches have their obvious merits and risks.
Personnel, or the lack of options in personnel, is something to consider for this specific match. It's no secret that United's midfield often lacks bite and because the mercurial Anderson had been in fine form as of late before getting injured last weekend, his vitality will be hugely missed for this derby. The young Tom Cleverley offers mobility as well but it looks like the tidy distributor will also be unavailable. Therefore, the United midfield might be static. Will this encourage Ferguson to congest the midfield in hope that extra bodies in a compact space might help nullify City's midfield advantage (by 'advantage', I mean the terrifying Yaya Toure)? Or might he think an open game and engaging in a shootout is his team's best chance at earning a result?
Something else to consider, personnel wise again, is the lack of available wingers for United. Whether United want to take a safe and counterattacking approach, or a brave and attacking one, having the pace and trickery of Antonio Valencia and Nani could have been key to both. Neither winger is available though. Ashley Young is one who could feature and he offers a wide outlet on the left.
Typically, and against lesser sides, United tend to press high up the pitch and this usually starts with the strikers. Both Robin van Persie and Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) do well in leading this. However, Sir Alex's men have nowhere near the cohesion and relentlessness in pressing in comparison to those who are elite at doing so: Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund, a Marcelo Bielsa side (when they actually listen to his orders). One reason United's shape tends to be open, especially when they decide to pressure high up the pitch, is that Rio Ferdinand sits too deep. The 34-year-old does not like defending on the turn because of his declining pace. If United do press City, they'll be vulnerable when the home side transitions after winning the ball. When Rio positions himself relatively deep, then that means he has defend in space while trying to hold up the attacker coming at him while waiting for help to arrive.
If United stand-off, it's worth noting that they haven't been nearly as devastating on the counter since Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez left the club. Between 2006-09, any of those two, Wayne Rooney, Park Ji-sung, or Nani could be deployed as a front three. On the counter, each of those players were versatile and skilled enough to play on either flank or through the center, and as a result, their interchangeability and fluid movements made them unpredictable and lethal during counterattacks. Theoretically, if United decide to take a similar approach against City, the likes of RvP, Rooney, Welbeck, and Young offer the same versatility -- although they haven't really had the chance this season to try this strategy. In United's only other 'big game' this season, at Stamford Bridge versus Chelsea, they stood off. However, they used a slightly differing strategy of defending with two banks of four before breaking down the right-side through Valencia and Rafael.
With all of this context in mind, it'll be interesting to see what approach Sir Alex takes. Here's a look at the possible shapes he could deploy his side in:
The most common shape for United is them playing with a standard back four, two relatively deep central-midfielders, two out-and-out wingers, and a player that operates in the space between the lines in support of a lead striker playing off the shoulder of the opposition's last defender. In this shape, either a proactive or reactive approach can be taken.
If United were to press high up the pitch at the Etihad, the two forwards would press City's center-backs while the wingers would try to pin back their counterpart full-backs. The vulnerability, though, from a United perspective, would be that they would be outnumbered in midfield -- severely so when considering that City's nominal wide players tend to float towards the center of the pitch.
If United sit back in this shape, they'd essentially be defending with two compact banks of four and also with the withdrawn forward dropping onto City's deepest-lying double-pivot (either Toure or Gareth Barry/Javi Garcia). If City's full-backs are encouraged to get forward in order to offer width in attack, the obvious out-ball would be in the wide areas behind those full-backs.
If United do decided to play in a 4-4-1-1, then this is a possible lineup:
4-1-2-1-2 (diamond midfield)
This shape is a relatively new one for Ferguson (although he did try it at Southampton two seasons ago in a FA Cup match). It's a common shape in Italy, a country that generally emphasizes midfield security, but it's a relatively rare one in England. The idea is to pack to the midfield in multiple layers so that control can be established. Width is supposed to be provided by full-backs encouraged to get forward and join the attack. The biggest drawback to this system is that it's vulnerable against opposition that attack well from the wide areas -- it's quite easy for opponents to create 2 v 1 or 3 v 2 overloads on the flanks against a diamond midfield.
United have only tried this against weaker opposition and the results have been mixed. At it's best, United's short-passing is fluid and their movement is terrific. At it's frustrating moments, the full-backs get forward but look lost in attack without a winger to combine with. Sometimes, it simply looks like United run out of ideas in attack and that's not surprising because of the unfamiliarity of this system.
If United try this system against City, it will be because Ferguson feels the need to congest the midfield so that his side doesn't lose control there. This could be further beneficial when the likes of David Silva (if he passes a late fitness test) and Samir Nasri drift inside from their nominal wide positions. United, though, would likely be vulnerable when full-backs Maicon and Pablo Zabaleta motor forward into free space. The former is suspect defending these days but he's good going forward still. Zabaleta caused problems in the April title-decider when Ryan Giggs continually failed to track back -- that was on the right-side, though, and the Argentine is expected to be a left-back this time in place of the injured Gael Clichy (assuming he doesn't make a late recovery) and Aleksandar Koralov.
With Anderson and Cleverley out, this seemingly makes it less likely Ferguson would use this shape because both of those midfielders are the only ones mobile enough to play a shuttling role (the two midfielders in between the holding-midfielder and the playmaker). Although, the versatile Rooney and Phil Jones would be possible in this role. If United do play in this shape though, here's a possible lineup:
A 4-3-3 might offer the best balance between midfield stability and width. It would be hardly surprising if this is the shape Ferguson decides to go with and it's one he's used more frequently this season in comparison to the previous two. There are two variations to it for United, albeit slightly.
Between 2006-09, United's 4-3-3 could probably be better described as a 4-2-1-3. There were two relatively deep-central midfielders (double-pivots if you prefer), one advanced player that completed the midfield trio, a central-striker, and two wide forwards -- the latter two would track back onto the opposition's full-backs when out of possession. This is the shape Ferguson started with last weekend at Reading -- Anderson was ahead of Carrick and Fletcher in midfield, Rooney was the right-sided forward while Young was the left-sided one, and RvP was the lead striker. A similar shape could be used at City.
With the plethora of City players that tend to float in the space between the lines (e.g. Silva, Nasri, Carlos Tevez, and Sergio Aguero), it may be prudent to use two deep-central midfielders in order to occupy this zone. A single-holder, in a 4-1-4-1 shape, might not be enough to guard this space. Maybe this is why, with City in mind, Ferguson deployed his side in a 4-2-1-3 at the start against Reading. If United play in this shape for the derby, here's a possible lineup:
The other possible 4-3-3 variant is 4-1-2-3, or 4-1-4-1 when out of possession. As just mentioned, this essentially has one true holding-midfielder that shields the back four while operating in behind two other central-midfielders. After Anderson hobbled off at Reading, Jones came on for him and the shape of United's midfield had a subtle shift: Fletcher moved up slightly higher while Jones played a bit deeper than the Brazilian he replaced. If United were to use this shape against City, then Carrick (the likely holding-midfielder) would be alone to patrol the space between the lines while the two advanced central-midfielders would directly clash with City's two central-midfielders. This hypothetical scenario would probably be a worry for United. If they do decide to play in this 4-1-2-3 shape, here's a possible lineup: