When the Manchester Derby kicks off on Sunday it will have been exactly four weeks since Manchester United’s last Premier League match, a 3-1 win over Arsenal at Old Trafford. Matches against Crystal Palace and Leeds United were postponed after the passing of England’s Queen Elizabeth II, leaving United with no chance to continue their momentum in the league ahead of the international break.
Now they face arguably their toughest test all season, a trip to the Etihad to face two-time defending Premier League champions Manchester City.
Here’s our preview of the fixture and the battles that will determine the outcome.
Stop... er... Contain Erling Braut Haaland
How different would things be had United fulfilled Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s wishes to sign Erling Haaland in January, 2020? Unfortunately there’s no time to care because he’s a noisy neighbor now, and is well on pace to shatter the Premier League single season scoring record.
Haaland has been a force for City, scoring 14 goals in 10 appearances across all competitions and immediately becoming the seemingly unstoppable focal point of an already ridiculously talented Blues attack. The departures of Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling in the summer may present depth issues down the line, but for now Plan A is a pretty damn good one for City. They have a Terminator up front and playmakers at nearly every other position on the pitch to feed him.
This isn’t even the height of Haaland’s powers. Much of his individual game is underutilized so far at City simply because he isn’t needed to be involved as much as he was at Dortmund. AND YET he still works so hard off the ball and his movement makes defending him and the rest of the City attack a nightmare. Ilkay Gundogan is finding space to create and score in the box again, and De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva remain their typical highly creative and dangerous selves.
Perhaps another boost is City got to actually play another Premier League match before the international break, thumping 10-man Wolves 3-0 after a soul-crushing (for everyone but City fans (which is a lot of people)) 2-1 comeback win against Dortmund in the Champions League.
Haaland makes City a Death Star, but perhaps there is an exhaust port in the form of transition defending that United can exploit...
Tactical Preview (By- Pauly)
Like many Pep teams in the past, this Manchester City side can be vulnerable to counter attacks and quick transitions. City have a tendency to be very narrow and the right wingers can exploit the gaps left on the flanks with City’s inverted fullbacks. Too many teams dont’ try to exploit this because they’re too worried about the firepower City have going back the other way. You have to be bold and aggressive. United have twice used this recipe to beat City at the Ethiad in 2019-20 and again in 2020-21 and in Erik Ten Hag, they certainly have a coach that knows how to hit teams on the counter.
However, it is more complicated than just ‘sit back and hit them on the counter.’ If United play the way they played against Liverpool their chances of a win are slim. United started that game out in a mid block press but throughout the match just dropped deeper and deeper. The 23 successful box entries United allowed was among the highest United have allowed in a match since 2019-20 only that number has since been eclipsed twice against Southampton and Arsenal. The 16 deep completions they allowed was a far cry above the 5.93 per game they’ve averaged over the last five seasons (5.74 over the last three seasons). They got away with it against a Liverpool team that was a bit out of sorts and didn’t have a striker. On Sunday they’ll be facing Erling Haaland.
Hell, if United even play the way they played in their previous wins at the Ethiad they’ll be making things extremely difficult for themselves. Those two wins were two of three most ‘drop deep and absorb pressure’ matches they played under Ole Gunnar Solskajer. The 2019-20 contest saw them allow City to successfully enter their box 43 times - by far the most box entries United have conceded in a single match in the last five years. They got away with it back then because City fluffed a bunch of chances. You don’t want to give them the same kind of opportunities with Haaland now in the mix.
There is a blueprint for United to go off though. The 2-0 win United scored at Old Trafford right before lockdown was won in different means. United played a strong mid-block press that day, defending much higher up the pitch and hardly allowing City to even get close to their box (City completed just two passes within 20 yards of United’s goal that day).
Against Liverpool United relied on strong defending in the box, energy higher up the field, winning second balls, and bounces going their way. They’re going to have to do more than that to get a result against City. They’re going to need to pick out passes to launch attacks and take some pressure off their defenders.
That’s going to be the key for United. In possession they can’t rely on simply winning second balls to launch their attack. Out of possession they need to engage City higher up the pitch. If you want to stop Haaland you need to keep City as far away from your goal as possible, prevent the ball from even getting to him.
Of course, it’s also possible that over the international break Pep has looked over United, figured out their weak points, and devised a plan to attack that perfectly, because well, Pep.
Manchester City 3-2 Manchester United
This game will hopefully at least be fun to watch. City can score for fun and United have done well for themselves sitting deep and creating quickfire chances with space ahead of them. Both teams will have chances to play their game, but unfortunately for United they’re some distance behind their neighbors in terms of teambuilding.
United have defended well since their 4-0 loss at Brentford, but there’s only so much you can do against a team like City.