The run-in is here. As the season continues to wind down, the Manchester derby at the Etihad on April 30 is beginning to loom larger. After topping the table for five months, Manchester City's defeat in Wales (*) by Swansea City two weekends ago opened the door for Manchester United to become the leaders again. As it stands now, only one point separates United from their 'noisy neighbours'.
(*) I wonder if Liverpool and their supporters talked themselves into thinking that a trip to Wales this season is a European night? They've certainly showed the capacity for delusion as of late.
Many pundits and fans are now tipping United as the eventual champions due to their perceived easier fixture list for the run-in and also because the abundance of experience this squad has in title races. There is a semblance of truth to this but it's equally important -- perhaps more even -- to consider that a single slip-up or an unexpected injury to an influential or in-form player can massively swing the momentum of the title race. In addition, City will be the hosts on April 30 and the match will be played in a stadium where they have a 100% record this season in league. Point being, there are a plethora of variables and they yield too much influence so attempting to project the run-in is mostly a futile exercise.
One thought that I can't shake when my mind wanders to that possible title-decider is the tactical importance for United to be the leaders when they step onto the pitch at the Etihad. In three matches this season with City, United have taken varied approaches. In the Community Shield -- one that was actually much more competitive than usual -- United had a go at City and thrillingly came back from 0-2 down to nick it 3-2 at the end on a Nani winner. It was a match that United mostly controlled as well. In the infamous 1-6 league nightmare at Old Trafford, United actually played well prior to Mario Balotelli's opening goal in the 22nd minute. The hosts were then torn apart between the lines by City's 'interiores' when they were forced to chase the game -- going down to ten-men just after half-time didn't help matters either. In the FA Cup encounter at City in January, United manager Sir Alex Ferguson got his tactics right by deciding to defend deep. Although the hosts in this derby again went down to ten-men, the away side was already ahead again when this occurred.
A few weeks back, Fergie expressed that he would be content if United had the opportunity to overtake City on April 30. This meant that he'd take a scenario where United were at least within 2 points -- or within 3 with a goal differential advantage -- prior to the match. While this would be far from a dire situation, it's still one that would worry me. If we are forced to take the game to City, then we might open ourselves up again and our rivals are well-suited to exploit this with between the line creators (David Silva, Samir Nasri, James Milner, & Carlos Tevez), dangerous finishers (Balotelli, Tevez, Sergio Aguero, & Edin Dzeko), and driving runs from midfield (Milner, Yaya Toure, & Adam Johnson). This is precisely what happened at Old Trafford in October.
However, if we are able to enter the match level on points with a goal differential advantage or with a lead in points, then this situation may hinder City and thus, benefit United. This would allow United to take a deep-defending approach -- because obtaining all three points wouldn't be an absolute necessity -- as this tactic is one that City has struggled to deal with this season. Roberto Mancini's side tends to play very narrow (diagram of their starting lineup vs. Chelsea on Wednesday is below) and they bottle themselves up at times. As a result, their attack can become predictable and their opposition can be very difficult to break down if they defend deep, narrow, and compact the lines.
City's biggest weakness in their tremendous squad is the lack of a dynamic deep-lying playmaker (*). This sort of player could open up space higher up in the City attack by forcing the opposition to come out higher in an effort to close down the deep-distributor. Instead, the opposition can sit deep and tight, let City aimlessly ping the ball around, and then look to hit on the counter when opportunity strikes. When Toure is deployed deep alongside either Nigel De Jong or Gareth Barry, the Ivorian's driving runs often exposes his partner as either De Jong or Barry have too much space to cover on the counter. This could be the approach that United takes.
(*) This makes Patrick Vieira's comments this week about Paul Scholes even more silly.
Anyway, I realize the match is still over a month away and that there are plenty of other league ones in between. I'll be sure to break down the match-up into more tactical detail as it nears. But as this title race progresses, these general tactical scenarios are worth considering. Quite obviously, we would all like to be the leaders ahead of the City match. But perhaps less obviously, the position of the two sides in the league table may play a drastic role in the tactics that Fergie and Mancini deploy during the derby. Thus, the matches ahead of April 30 may potentially be the ones that truly decide this title race.