Wayne Rooney is not guaranteed to feature in the 165th Manchester derby, something that would have been unthinkable in the seasons prior to this one. Therefore, when the team sheets are delivered an hour prior to kick-off, Rooney not being in the starting XI would render this piece irrelevant. Nonetheless, if he starts -- which I anticipate that he will -- this game will provide Wazza an opportunity to shine.
As everyone is probably aware, Rooney was dropped for the massive 2nd-leg tie last month against Real Madrid. It was arguably United's biggest game of the season. Sir Alex Ferguson played it cool when predictably asked why he had dropped the most important player in his squad in the three seasons prior to this one. The manager simply explained the reasoning was tactical. Translation: Rooney's waning defensive abilities were a massive liability and it was Danny Welbeck that was tasked with the enormous responsibility of harassing influential deep-lying playmaker Xabi Alonso. The 22-year-old ended up doing his job superbly well.
Manchester City aren't a side that have a deep-lying playmaker in the mold of an Alonso, Andrea Pirlo, Paul Scholes, Sergio Busquets, or even a Michael Carrick. Gareth Barry is reliable in possession but he's doesn't possess the incisive passing range of the midfield maestros just mentioned. Therefore, there isn't quite the need of United's withdrawn striker/ No.10 in their typical 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1 shape to immediately close down City's deepest-lying midfielder -- likely to be Barry, or possibly Javi Garcia.
The midfield battle is likely going to come down to Yaya Toure and Barry (or Garcia) versus Carrick and Cleverley (or Phil Jones). Therefore, Rooney wouldn't have to be worried about concentrating too much on a complicated and specific defensive task such as getting goalside of a deep-lying playmaker. Although, of course, that does not absolve the England international from the defensive responsibilities of pressing City's backline or trying to cut out easy entry lanes into midfield that their center-backs will try to use.
Attacking wise, Rooney should have plenty of opportunity to influence the derby. One defensive weakness of City is the lackadaisical efforts of their strikers not called Carlos Tevez. Sergio Aguero and Edin Dzeko aren't the most enthusiastic players in leading the defensive effort from the front. The knock-on effect is that the central-midfielders -- Yaya and Barry -- often are forced to step up higher and close down the space in front of them. In turn, this leaves too much space between City's defensive and midfield lines. This is space that Rooney, or whoever is tasked in the secondary striker/No.10 role for United, can exploit.
In December's derby at the Etihad, Rooney took full advantage of this defensive vulnerability of City's. This was quite evident in both of United's first-half goals, particularly the second one.
Ferguson's tactics that day were for his side to play on the counterattack, something they did brilliantly well in the first-half. Prior to United's second goal, City lost possession in their attacking-third and right-back Rafael broke past David Silva -- a nominal left-sided attacker that continually drifts into central positions -- to create a 2 v 1 overload on the flank with Antonio Valencia. The speed of United's break didn't allow Barry and Yaya enough time to recover in order to support their back four. Barry did, though, try to cover for Silva and got sucked out wide and this allowed space for Rooney to run into in the central area. When Rafael and Valencia entered the attacking third, the threat of Robin van Persie's goalscoring prowess and his intelligent movement allowed him to occupy both of City's center-backs. Rooney delayed his run, and with Barry nor Yaya not being properly positioned to help out their back four, the United No.10 was able to perfectly time his arrival so that he had plenty amount of space in the penalty area -- the Englishman clinically finished his chance from Rafael's cross.
Diagram 1: The solid arrows indicate player movement while the dotted arrow indicates Rafael's cross into the area for Rooney's delayed and well-timed run during his second goal against City.
In recent months, City haven't resolved these issues. None of the strikers besides Tevez are defensively adequate and this has resulted in the shape of Roberto Mancini's side being too open at times and particularly vulnerable to counterattacks. Even in patient attacking moves when City have an opportunity to organize their defensive shape, the space between theirs lines is often vulnerable because Yaya is always looking to break forward when he can and Barry doesn't have the mobility nor the awareness to consistently patrol this space by himself in an adequate fashion. Rooney, if he starts, should have time and space to wreak havoc in the derby. And he likely won't be a defensive liability. Will he take advantage of this opportunity?