Manchester United face Manchester City at the Etihad on Sunday in the Premier League. City are 28 games unbeaten in all competitions and their comfortable 4-1 midweek win against Wolves stretches City’s lead over United in the league to 14 points. Yikes. United remain in second despite dropping points at Chelsea and Crystal Palace and have gone three games in all competitions without scoring or conceding.
More 0-0 draws than wins...— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) March 4, 2021
A high number of stalemates has cost Manchester United in recent weeks
Since United went top of the league in January, with City climbing the table, they have played 10 fixtures and collected 15 points – three wins and six draws – from a possible 30. By comparison, City last dropped points in the league on 15 December 2020. United’s slump predates losing Paul Pogba to injury during the 3-3 with Everton.
While United are hellbent on morphing into a hybrid of Sir Alex Ferguson’s doughnut formation from 2009/10 without the wingers, the Manchester derby represents something of a free hit for Ole Gunnar Solskjær and his team. Given the respective current fortunes and form, United are not expected to beat City on Sunday – nor catch them this season. Solskjær has been here before, of course, and enjoyed remarkable away wins when backed into a corner. But any expectation to counterpunch Pep Guardiola and City has been undermined with woeful performances of late. The 0-0 at Selhurst Park on Wednesday was as bottom of the barrel as anything Louis van Gaal or José Mourinho have served up.
For Solskjær, the manager needs to forget their meaningless unbeaten away record and impressive head-to-heads with Guardiola, and focus entirely on getting a tune out of a laboured United side. City away should provide ample spark for his players which Solskjær feels they lack at the moment. Whether United are simply going through the motions or are chronically fatigued remains to be seen and is a debate for another day. For now, it’s all about pride.
March will define United’s season. After the derby this weekend, United have AC Milan home and away in the last 16 of the Europa League, fourth-placed West Ham United sandwiched in between in the league, and finally Leicester City in the sixth round of the FA Cup before the international break. United could be out of all the cups and freefalling in fourth in the league a fortnight before Easter.
United need Bruno Fernandes back to his belligerent and dazzling best after two worrying performances against Chelsea and Palace. The Portuguese didn’t even register a shot at Selhurst Park and looked subdued again throughout. Marcus Rashford’s most notable contribution was giving his captain an earful.
Solskjær: "Forty-five minutes on a Thursday is good preparation for a Sunday, definitely better than no minutes and then maybe training too much tomorrow because they are eager, and they might over-cook it." #mulive https://t.co/oZoTj3ty3N— utdreport (@utdreport) February 26, 2021
We are assured that both Fernandes and Rashford are not lacking physical fitness. United are reliant on their star players performing and, with Pogba out, Fernandes has been left to carry the team once more. That burden seems to be weighing heavily on Fernandes who once appeared immortal for United.
“We know the physical demands,” says Richard Hawkins, United’s head of athletic training, “but you can’t measure the mental freshness ... so it’s vital that we monitor that very closely.”
Perhaps Fernandes and Rashford are both mentally shot, which would be completely understandable in such intense and relentless circumstances as this season. Solskjær can only hope games against City and Milan will sharpen their minds in particular.
Releasing the forwards
Counterattacking the opposition should not be United’s default plan but Solskjær will have the ‘luxury’ of setting up his team to do just that on Sunday. Against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last weekend, United played with a high line but didn’t have the space or nous to play in their forwards. United are unlikely to try and dominate City. Scott McTominay and Fred will need to find red shirts accurately and quickly when they get the chance to break.
James Garner is having a lovely time in Nottingham at Forest. United could do with a decent passer of the ball in midfield. Please, sir. Can we have our central midfielder back?
The only lasting inquest for United would be following a heavy defeat to City and, after the 6-1 from Tottenham earlier in the season, that may be enough to spook Solskjær into a change of formation if United really are struggling.
Though Luke Shaw’s attacking influence on its own may merit the change for this match, it would feel like a backwards step for United and Solskjær who need to be bolder in the big games – especially were things to go wrong having settled into a 4-2-3-1. Neither Mason Greenwood nor Rashford are scoring freely at the moment and sacrificing a striker could risk isolating the pair.
David de Gea will reportedly be absent for more than a couple of matches and may not return until April. Here’s hoping that everything is OK with De Gea and his family, and new baby.
Dean Henderson, then, will have an extended run in the team and is unlikely to be kicking his heels at the Etihad until the 90th minute.