Manchester City have defeated Manchester United in five of their last six Premier League meetings and will look to make it four in a row with their home advantage in the game on Sunday. Yet, now is probably the worst time when Pellegrini and his wards could have had an appointment with their cross town rivals. City are reeling from a truly tumultuous ten days that have seen a sequence of abject performances that saw them surrender a two goal lead to draw with CSKA Moscow in a European fixture, capitulate to a 1-2 loss to West Ham over the weekend and then fail to deliver the goods against Newcastle United mid week, losing their Capital One Cup fixture against the Magpies 0-2, in the process getting dumped out of the tournament. On the other hand, United would be rested without the added burden of European or Cup football and motivated after earning a well fought point via a draw as they hosted league leaders Chelsea over the previous weekend. Louis van Gaal showed his tactical prowess by out-thinking former protege Jose Mourinho leaving the Portuguese manager frustrated at the end of 90 minutes and Pellegrini would need to bring out his A game if he wants to maintain his team’s winning record over the Dutch manager’s wards. The Chilean gaffer however has plenty worries at home, starting with his defense.
Defense is a concern for City
Since the start of the season, City have not fielded the same back four in two consecutive matches. While this is similar to their rivals, United’s seeming profligacy is actually a cause of frequent injuries amongst their defensive ranks. City on the other hand are still trying to figure out their best combination for the defensive four. The constant rotation of Gael Clichy/Aleksandr Kolarov and Eliaquim Mangala/Martin Demichelis has made the back four unstable with captain Vincent Kompany and Pablo Zabaleta the only two players featuring in the back four with any regularity. City’s defensive problems start with their goalkeeper Joe Hart though. The English shot stopper who has consistently been one of the top goalkeepers in international football for quite a few seasons saw a sudden dip in performance last season, a drop so drastic that it prompted Pellegrini to bring in Willy Caballero over the summer transfer window. The Argentine goalkeeper has been swapped for Joe Hart with alarming regularity and it is surely unsettling to the defenders in front of him when they are not used to how their goalkeeper would react to crosses and aerial balls and how his distribution of the ball would be. Kompany as always has been a rock in defense helping out Joe Hart as well as his team in more than one sticky situation. He has performed exceptionally well and while it is difficult to pick one, his performance against Chelsea has been the highlight of his season so far. After Zabaleta was sent off with almost 30 minutes to go for the final whistle, Kompany marshalled the defense really well and was instrumental in holding fort against the repeated forays of Hazard and Costa, allowing Chelsea to score only once. His defensive partner, Eliaquim Mangala, had a stellar debut in the same match but his performances have gone downhill so far reaching the nadir with his absolutely poor show against Newcastle where he was troubled by Obertan and half time substitute Amoebi. Demichelis has seemed more assured than his £23 million ex-Porto compatriot in central defense. The Argentine centre back keeps the ball well though, given his age, has a propensity to get turned by a faster striker. Fortunately for City, United do not possess a striker with out and out pace with both Rooney and RvP depending on timing their runs and their skill on the ball to beat defenders. Kolarov and Clichy on the left of defense have been a shaky proposition so far. Both players are good going forward in attack and provide City with a wide array of crosses from the left flank. Their issue however is defensively. Kolarov is slow on the trackback while Clichy has difficult handling aerial balls. This leaves City vulnerable on their left flank and brings us to our next point.
Their right flank is where United need to concentrate their attack
LvG started Angel di Maria and Rafael on the right flank against Chelsea. While defensively suspect, Rafael adds an attacking dimension to the right flank overlapping with the winger as well as putting in crosses of his own. In light of City’s defensive frailities on the left United must look to attack down this flank. Against West Ham, Enner Valencia’s pace down the left was a constant source of problem for City. The Newcastle game saw ex-United man Gabriel Obertan and Sissokho trouble City in similar fashion. Di Maria would definitely be a more substantial challenge than either of the three aforementioned players and City will need to find a solution to keep di Maria quiet till he switches to his favoured left flank, as in the game against Chelsea. For City the game could very well be won in midfield.
Dropping one striker could be the key to unlock United
Manchester United have been without a strong midfield enforcer for a while now. After Roy Keane’s departure, Scholes did become the chief orchestrator of midfield but since then no single United midfielder has really looked the kind of player who can dictate and control proceeding sitting deep in midfield. It is not a hyperbole to say that many United fans have cast an envious eye at Chelsea’s Nemanja Matic. City’s James Milner could well be the key to break down United’s passing tempo. The Englishman brings a great attacking game to the table but his tenacity will make him very useful on the left flank to shore up some of the defensive frailities previously highlighted. Also, given Toure’s relative lack of form this season, Milner can also cut in centrally to help out Fernandinho and Toure on the attacks when they lose possession. Daley Blind has played well for United as CDM so far but to be fair he has not really faced any quality opposition yet barring Fabregas and Matic last weekend against Chelsea. Even then, Blind needed some rescuing from his defenders or Fellaini and Mata from midfield more than once. Zabaleta down the right flank, Milner down the right cutting in and Toure and Fernandinho could be enough to overwhelm the Dutchman alone and will therefore force Fellaini and Mata (or Rooney) to drop in deeper to defend and retrieve the ball. To accomodate an extra midfielder to provide more impetus, City should consider dropping one striker of their favoured two striker formation. Dzeko is going through a lean phase of form while Jovetic is only just returning from an injury. Playing Aguero as the lone man upfront has worked in the past and given that Silva is injured and ruled out warranting the starting of Nasri in the number 10 position, playing two strikers upfront can potentially leave City defensively light if and when United mount their own counterattack. Playing an extra midfielder should not damage City’s attacking prowess too significantly but comes with the added advantage of bolstering both midfield and defense.
United could be caught dead in dead ball situations
Last weekend’s goal scored by Chelsea’s Didier Drogba highlighted one of the most glaring issues with United’s game since the start of the season – their inability to do much in dead ball situations. Currently United’s defense against a free kick near the edge of the box or from a corner kick is to recklessly throw bodies in the path of the ball and hope for the best. Drogba is a seasoned campaigner and was quick to lose the younger, less experienced Rafael before heading home at the near post. Before that, United had conceded two more goals from corner kicks. The issue is not specifically of lack of height but lack of coordination between the players. Given the overhaul Louis van Gaal has put the club through this summer and the introduction of many new faces in the squad, this was expected. However the “newness” factor is not getting ironed out as quickly as anyone associated with United would like. City are a very real threat from dead ball situations. Aguero and Nasri have the guile required to draw fouls from opposition players in dangerous positions while Milner, Toure and Nasri all have a mean delivery from a free kick near the opposition’s box. Till the time United’s players take more personal responsibility and communicate better, they will be vulnerable to dead balls and Pellegrini would have duly taken note of this while preparing for the derby.
The match will probably be decided by the outcome of one of two all-Argentinian duels
Angel di Maria will go toe to toe with Zabaleta while Marco Rojo will take on the might of City’s Sergio Aguero. Both these battles seem to be loaded in favour of the attacking player but Zabaleta is more experienced than both di Maria and Marcos Rojo, while Aguero has been more prolific in front of goal compared to di Maria. Rojo struggled against Chelsea and was actually handed a reprieve by the fact that Didier Drogba started for the injured Diego Costa. Had the latter started the game, the outcome for Rojo and his club could have been drastically different. Rojo’s inexperience clearly still shows in his game as he was fooled more than once by the combination of Ivanovic and Oscar in the Chelsea game. Even in set pieces, Rojo found it difficult to manage Ivanovic and Terry in his box and by many people’s reckoning should have been booked for a goal mouth melee with Ivanovic, a booking that would also have resulted in a penalty for Chelsea. It would not therefore be too much to say that the game’s outcome will be decided by how these two pairs of players perform.
Manchester City are definitely in a slump right now but nothing like a Manchester derby match to motivate players to give their best. If they play to their potential, the home team would be hard to beat especially for an out of sorts United side who are battling their own defensive and injury devils. That said, van Gaal has many seasons and titles under his belt and he will play into the psyche of a beleaguered City side and their manager. Boosted by the return of his captain, Wayne Rooney, the Dutch manager has many attacking talents at his disposal who can quickly and decisively turn the game in his side’s favour were the hosts to slip up. City must snap out of their reverie while United must repeat their dogged performance against Chelsea, albeit at an away game. Away games have been an Achilles’ heel for van Gaal’s side but given the various mini battles that are brewing at individual players’ levels, this Manchester Derby promises to be a very interesting one.