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The Great Red Debate: Manchester derby talking points

The whole crew is here for this week’s Great Red Debate, as Andi, Jack and Ryan discuss the upcoming Manchester derby.

Real Madrid v Barcelona - La Liga Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Ryan: The first Manchester derby of the season will take place on Saturday (10 September), and it’s fair to say that everybody in this parish is rather excited about it.

There is always a little extra tension and anticipation around local derbies due to the historical significance of the fixture, the long-standing rivalry, and those much sought-after "bragging rights" raising the stakes higher than the average Premier League encounter.

But this derby is different. This time there are more narratives at play here than any football fan could hope to keep track of, and there is no shortage of intrigue.

A lot of the pre-match focus will be on the resumption of the Mourinho-Guardiola rivalry, as two of the most decorated coaches in football history pick up where they left off with their mutual disdain and battle for supremacy.

There’s also the two sides’ new signings taking part in their first ever Manchester derby; will it be Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Nolito who grabs the headlines? Will Paul Pogba shine? Will John Stones outperform Eric Bailly? So many possibilities.

And both Manchester United and Manchester City have made a 100 percent start to the Premier League season; three wins out of three; nine points from a possible nine. Both are title favourites, so this game represents the first opportunity for each side to strike a blow against their rival’s championship challenge.

With so many questions set to be answered, and with so many different points of interest, what aspect of Saturday’s game is most exciting you right now?

Andi: Before the STUPID INTERNATIONAL BREAK it would have been the prospect of seeing Henrikh Mkhitaryan start, which would give United proper pace on both flanks for the first time since ... well, for a while. But he might be injured, because INTERNATIONAL FOOTBALL IS STUPID, so I'll have to look elsewhere.*

Maybe it's not exciting in the traditional sense, but I'm genuinely very interested to see how United's defence gets on against City's attacking. So far, Pep Guardiola's been going for something that at times amounts to a five-man front line, and when it clicks — against Steaua Bucharest, for the first half against Stoke City — it looks fairly terrifying. How Luke Shaw, Antonio Valencia, and whichever two of Bailly, Daley Blind and Chris Smalling get on could well be season-defining.

* For the record, I actually really like international football. But it can be stupid.

Jack: It’s pathetically partisan, but I think I’m most excited by the prospect of United actually beating City. Of course, the game is anything but a foregone conclusion, but it’s safe to say that United have as good a chance against (arguably) their biggest rivals as they have had at any point over the last few years. We’re also all thoroughly aware of the propensity for Guardiola’s sides to have high-profile meltdowns, and Saturday would be as ideal a time as any for another to occur.

From a non-biased standpoint, it’s probably just the prospect of seeing José Mourinho going up against Guardiola once again. Not so much because of the eye-gougingly (pun intended) boring media narrative, but because of the on-field action. It’s a true battle between the two era-defining styles of football: high-tempo counter-attacking against suffocating possession; and for once our team has a stake in the war. It kind of feels like we’re back at the top again. Personally, I’ve always been a fan of Guardiola’s style, but that only promises to make things even more intriguing on the weekend.

Ryan: I think I am most looking forward to seeing which manager blinks first, from a tactical standpoint. Both, as you mention, Jack, have very distinctive styles and systems, and I’m intrigued to see to what degree either coach compromises their traditional approach to account for the other’s.

Normally, you’d assume that Mourinho, as the more reactionary tactician, would be the man to devise a plan to specifically deal with the team he is up against. But, with the expansive and intricate tactics we’ve seen Guardiola employ at City to date, I wonder whether he fully trusts his personnel to pull it off against a much higher calibre of opposition than they’ve faced so far.

Will he stick with David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne in the central midfield zones when they don’t have the ball, where they could potentially come up against the physicality of Pogba and the elbows of Mourane Fellaini? When in possession, will he ask his full-backs to push up into midfield if United, as Andi said, have genuine pace on the flanks and pose a serious counter-attack threat? These are the questions I am looking forward to seeing answered.

Andi: If Guardiola does want to change things a little bit and perhaps solidify his midfield, he has the perfect excuse: Sergio Agüero is suspended. The obvious like-for-like replacement is Kelechi Iheanacho, but stereotype would suggest that he’ll embrace something excitingly strikerless. And if so, then much pressure will be on United's central defenders to read the runners and step out intelligently, which perhaps makes Blind the call over Smalling.

The full-backs-into-midfield question is another interesting one, particularly on United's left/City's right. City's full-backs were much less prone to tucking in against West Ham, out of respect for their opponents' wing-backs. United likely won't play wing-backs, but Shaw — assuming his England complications are nothing serious — gets up and down at a ridiculous clip, and if he and Anthony Martial get space, that could be profitable.

Going into this game (and assuming nothing particularly surprising, like a Wayne Rooney dropping) there are three selection decisions for Mourinho to make: two from Bailly, Blind and Smalling; somebody to partner Pogba in the middle; and the right-sided player in the attacking three. Who would you go with, Jack?

Jack: I’m glad I’m not Mourinho: second-guessing Guardiola is a nigh-on impossible task. I think Andi’s right to suggest he’s going to do something a little more unpredictable than bringing Iheanacho in as a like-for-like Agüero replacement, though quite what that will be is much harder to predict. Raheem Sterling seems the most natural choice, perhaps allowing David Silva to start wide and someone a little beefier to come into the centre of midfield; that said, Fernando and Fabian Delph are not the sorts of player likely to scare Pogba or Fellaini.

Assuming that’s still the case, I think I’d be tempted to stick with Fellaini alongside Pogba in the middle of the pitch. At the start of the season I was pretty convinced that the Pogba-Schneiderlin axis struck the best attack-defence balance, though Fellaini has shown a hitherto-concealed positional discipline under Mourinho, and has an ability to cause real problems with his strength and physicality. He’s done it against City before, and could well do so again.

If City to start with a false-nine, that probably means their biggest threat will be penetrating runs from their wide players. Positioning, rather than pure physicality, will be the most important aspect of United’s defence. For that, I’d stick with Blind and Bailly, with Smalling the unfortunate party missing out. And finally, though Guardiola does love to do all kinds of weird and wonderful things with his full-backs, City’s don’t look particularly scary. Jesse Lingard is the tireless workhorse option, though I think we can afford to take a few more risks in attack. If Mkhitaryan’s fit, I’d love to see him play, if not, I’d be tempted to stick with Juan Mata.

Ryan: In the centre of defence, I’d stick with Bailly and Blind. I am concerned, however, that City’s movement could drag Blind out of position. The Dutchman’s major perceived weakness as a centre-back is his size and pace; I actually think he does OK physically, but hasn’t developed a full positional understanding of the role yet, as evidenced a few times last season — with Tottenham Hotspur and West Bromwich Albion away and Watford at home springing to mind as the clearest examples of Blind regularly being caught out of position. But I’d be inclined to keep faith in the understanding he has developed with Bailly.

On the right wing, although Mata has played pretty well there this season, it’d be between Marcus Rashford and Lingard for me, assuming Mkhitaryan is out. As we’ve mentioned, breaking into the spaces behind the full-backs could be a real opening for United, and the pace of Rashford or Lingard would be better suited to that. It then becomes a choice between the tactical discipline of Lingard or the condifent and direct dribbling of Rashford; I’d plump for the latter, but I’m not sure Mourinho would agree.

To partner Pogba, and to continue the theme of exposing City on the counter, I’d quite like to see Ander Herrera. It would be somewhat of a risk, given he doesn’t have the defensive acumen of Morgan Schneiderlin or even Fellaini, but his speed of thought and execution would be much more conducive to exploiting space in behind during transition. Carrick may be a healthier balance between the defensive and offensive side of things, so I wouldn’t have a problem with him starting either. Ideally, I’d drop a certain somebody and play a 4-3-3 to give greater freedom to Pogba, while allowing for a dedicated defensive midfielder, but we all know that’s not happening.

Andi: Right, let's end with some positive thinking. It's half-past two on Saturday afternoon and Manchester United have just won the derby. Who scored the goal(s), how, and who got Man of the Match?

Jack: I’d settle for another last-gasp Rashford winner, after a tight, cagey encounter in which Eric ‘The Wall’ Bailly once again blocks all routes to goal for City’s enviable array of attacking talents. Preferably capped by a Mourinho-tearing-down-the-touchline-type celebration. That’s the dream.

Ryan: I’d love for this to be the game in which Pogba unleashes the magnificent fury of his full potential and dominates from start to finish. I’ll pick Rooney to score a late winner, because he seems destined to produce one moment of [let’s call it] magic in each game to justify his selection for the rest of eternity.

Andi: David de Gea was Man of the Match, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored the winner. With a really big header. In the 92nd minute. And then he ran over to the City dugout and shouted "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy!" and Guardiola vanished in a puff of smoke.