Tactics Arena: Manchester Derby Preview

The day has finally arrived. Manchester United vs Manchester City. Jose Mourinho vs Pep Guardiola. This is not just a mere clash of two famous and successful managers; this is the clash of two contrasting philosophies of football, the biggest game of the season so far between the two title favourites.

With just three matches played for each club, people are already looking at this fixture for an indication at who might be lifting the Premier League trophy come May. No Manchester Derby has been so heavily anticipated since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013.

With both sides having completely reshaped themselves – bringing in both world-class managers and spending hundreds of millions of pounds in the transfer market trying to assemble league-winning squads – who will come out on top? Red or Blue?

Predicted Line-Ups

Manchester United

manchester_united_fc_crest-svgJake’s predicted XI sees United maintain the same starters but for one player: Rashford coming in for Mata. Such a change will provide United with much more pace and directness on the flanks. Mkhitaryan, one of the big buys this summer, could also start, but Rashford’s hattrick mid-week for the England U-21s may have well tilted the favour towards the Mancunian.

United maintain solidity elsewhere, especially in their defence, with the two attack-minded full-backs supported by a beast of a centre-back in Bailly (making his derby debut) and the intelligent Blind. Fellaini and Pogba provide physicality in the middle of the park, with the Frenchman given the platform that he is expected to thrive on. Up front, Ibrahimovic will start with a point to prove against Guardiola, supported by Martial and Rooney. The inclusion of Rooney is questionable; the question hovers around whether Mourinho will make a statement and leave him out. Either way, with no injuries, Mourinho will have plenty of options to call up from the bench.

Jake’s MUFC 4-2-3-1: De Gea; Valencia, Bailly, Blind, Shaw; Fellaini, Pogba; Martial, Rooney, Rashford; Ibrahimović

On the other hand, an alternate formation could see United line up in a 4-3-3, to accommodate an extra central midfielder that could counter the opposition attack. In this case, the combative Ander Herrera could come in. Such a formation will also allow Pogba to play further forward and control the game. This tactical change would, however, see captain Rooney being left out. While that is deserved, will Mourinho have the guts to leave Rooney out in such a game? That remains to be seen; a 4-3-3 could be the way to go, even if Mourinho does not start with such a shape initially.

Rahul’s MUFC 4-3-3: De Gea; Valencia, Bailly, Blind, Shaw; Fellaini, Pogba, Herrera; Martial, Ibrahimović, Rashford

Manchester City

manchester_city_fc_badge-svgClaudio Bravo, Leroy Sane, and Ilkay Gundogan could all debut tomorrow if the news sources are to be trusted. Except Bravo, the starting position of the other two players is quite hard to guess. Gundogan might play in Fernandinho’s place as deep-lying playmaker. He could also play in Kevin De Bruyne’s position. The latter change would see de Bruyne moving closer towards the striker, which could mean a move to a 3-5-2 shape. But since Manchester United play with a 4-2-3-1, this shape seems highly unlikely.

As for Sane, he can play on the wings and is equally adept playing centrally. We might see him as de Bruyne’s substitute in the second half, which may warrant a more straightforward 4-3-3 line-up tomorrow.

Nachiketh’s MCFC 4-3-3: Bravo; Kolarov, Otamendi, Stones, Sagna; Fernandinho, Silva, Gündoğan; Nolito, Iheanacho, Sterling

Tactics and Key Players

Jake: I really wouldn’t be surprised if this game were to be won in the air, and if that is the case, I think it might swing in the way of Jose Mourinho’s side. When I look at how I expect these teams to line up, there are multiple players who could shape how the game pans out. But for United I see people who can win them the game, while for City it’s generally players who might lose them the match.

Although John Stones’ life at the Etihad has gotten off to a decent start, this weekend undoubtedly brings him his toughest physical challenge so far in a sky-blue shirt. Whether he’s faced with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Marouane Fellaini, Paul Pogba, or even Eric Bailly, I think he might struggle.

Similarly, in the first few weeks of the season, we’ve seen Pep Guardiola training his team to use slingshot full-backs, with the likes of Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna moving into the centre of midfield. While this may have worked incredibly well at Bayern Munich with Phillip Lahm and David Alaba, what he has available to him at City is quite different.

Personally, I feel these could be absolutely key areas in the derby. If City’s full-backs leave too much space for the likes of Anthony Martial, Luke Shaw, or Antonio Valencia to exploit and allow them to get crosses into the box, that could be the downfall of City.

Rahul: In a physical contest, United are going to dominate. That is ironic, but the additions of Pogba, Ibrahimovic and Bailly, tall and physical players, in addition to Fellaini will give the edge to United and give them an advantage in set pieces. Bailly in particular has started off well, and now faces a test. It will be crucial for him to maintain his composure though and not pull a Smalling.

United’s defence, which has been shaky for the past few seasons, is now much stronger. City, on the other hand, have their defensive issues. John Stones is certainly a ball-playing defender brimming with potential, but he is prone to mistakes. His opponent for the day? Ibrahimovic. It is a baptism of fire, and the Swede will look to dominate his man. He provides a target in the box and holds up play well, so his role will be crucial in this game.

Full-back is an area where the game could potentially be lost. For all of the money spent this summer, both clubs still have weaknesses on the defensive flank (mainly City). In Guardiola’s time so far he has resorted to using inverted full-backs, where the full-backs move into midfield, allowing the central midfielders to push forward. Kolarov and Sagna are competent, but are still new to this tactic; in fact, Kolarov has been deployed at centre-back for a number of games so far. Inexperience in such a tactic could see them caught open on the wings, especially if the speedy Rashford and Martial start. Their pace and directness could lead to an interesting battle. On the opposite end, Luke Shaw and Antonio Valencia are more attack-minded in nature. Both full-backs have started the season well, but Shaw is still not operating at 100% after his leg-break, while Valencia is a winger-converted full-back. The chance they get caught on the attack is real. Full-back is an area which both managers should be looking to target.

The potential inclusion of Rooney could also dictate who controls the midfield. City are blessed with a number of talented playmakers, namely Silva and de Bruyne, while Ilkay Gundogan could potentially be included. They will look to control possession and dictate the pace and rhythm of the match. Rooney, in my opinion, is too disruptive and could easily break down United’s counter-attacks. In an ideal world, a trio of Martial, Mkhitaryan and Rashford behind Ibrahimovic could be deadly: pace, directness, creativity, the whole lot. With Pogba behind, that midfield could cause havoc in the opposition third.

The United gameplan is likely to revolve around quick transitions, so with the full-backs likely to press forward, the game could provide an end-to-end battle. It’s a game of possession vs counter-attack. Both managers will play a big role in tactical changes, building up to an exciting game. It could be 0-0, it could be a thriller. Who knows? For once though, when the whistle blows, the focus will be on the pitch rather than the dugouts.

Nachiketh: Pep Guardiola, in all the previous games aside from the match against West Ham United, played with a 4-1-4-1 formation in which Fernandinho functioned as the deep-lying playmaker while Silva and de Bruyne occupied the no.10 roles. Against West Ham, the two no.10’s played a bit deep and acted more like no.8’s. Against West Ham’s 5-4-1, this change was crucial in widening the gap between the lines and making space for the creative players to take advantage of.

In the build-up phase, we have seen City bringing the ball out of the back by creating numerical superiorities and then circulating the ball in the middle third to create openings. Against Manchester United, we can expect the same since United is not going to contest for the ball and will be more than happy to press in the midfield to launch quick counter-attacks.

The attacking shape, however, will depend on how United lines up. If Mourinho decides to block central access with narrow wingers, then we might see a more generic 4-3-3 with the wing-backs and wingers alternating between the half-space and wings once the ball reaches the higher middle third. The wing-backs engage with the narrow wingers if United defend deep. The wingers can then drop deep to pull United’s wing-backs out of position to make room for the central midfielders and the striker to drift wide and collect the ball without any pressure. This 4-3-3 can be helpful due to the no.8’s who can try to draw off the opposition central midfielders.

I think, even if Mourinho doesn’t use narrow wingers, we are going to see the wingbacks of City move towards the half-spaces. With the inverted fullbacks of City and wide wingers of United, it will be easy for Guardiola’s team to gain numerical superiority in central regions of the field. In any case, the most probable formation, considering the fact that United has quick and creative wingers and a tall striker who can head in the crosses, is a 4-3-3.

Although Kelechi Iheanacho seems like the first choice up front, we might see Guardiola use a false 9 and play Nolito there. This could make way for Leroy Sane’s Premier League debut.

In the midfield, we might get to see Ilkay Gundogan playing for the first time in Manchester City colors if Guardiola decides to either move De Bruyne wide or drop Fernandinho.

The thing about predicting Guardiola’s next line, especially so early in the season and with a new team, is that we can only speculate some tactical tweaks from the maestro. Tomorrow, we might see him come up with a brand new idea to beat United. Or not. Guardiola is like a God. God’s way of doing things is complex and hard to predict.

Without even a little doubt, David Silva is going to be the key player tomorrow for Manchester City. Silva has been one of the main players in Pep Guardiola’s core team at City, alongside Raheem Sterling, Nolito, John Stones, and Sergio Aguero. His ability to play in tight spaces, good decision making, ability to dribble out of pressure and intelligence to create room for his teammates will be crucial when it comes down to breaking the well-drilled, tight and effectively pressing defense of Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United.

Combined XI

Jake’s XI (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Sagna, Smalling, Kompany, Shaw; Pogba, Fernandinho; Mkhitaryan, De Bruyne, Martial; Ibrahimović

Rahul’s XI (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Valencia, Stones, Bailly, Shaw; Pogba, Gündoğan; Mkhitaryan, de Bruyne, Silva; Agüero

Nachiketh’s XI (3-3-3-1): Bravo; Bailly, Stones, Otamendi; Gündoğan, Schneiderlin, Pogba; Mkhitaryan, Silva, de Bruyne; Ibrahimović

Score Prediction

Jake: Manchester United 2-1 Manchester City.

Rahul: Manchester United 1-0 Manchester City – for all of the fanfare, it will be a tight game, decided by a solitary goal. My bet is on Rashford to get the winner again.

Nachiketh: For the players of Manchester City and Manchester United, the playing styles of their respective managers are quite new, so I think this derby has the potential of ending up either as a high-scoring match or as a goalless draw. It all depends on which team will have adopted to the manager’s new style.

Mourinho will try to play reactive football and we might see Manchester City just lingering outside the final third trying to create openings. There are chances that we might see a surprise tactical move from Pep Guardiola!

Moreover, Mourinho always takes a cautious approach while playing against top teams early in the season. With Chelsea in 2013, he played it safely against David Moyes’ Manchester United. It’s because of this reason that I’m a bit skeptical about the score line.

So putting a full stop to ifs and buts, I’m going to go with a narrow win for Manchester City. 2-1.


This preview is the first release of FutbolPulse’s “Tactics Arena” series. In each installment, multiple members of the FutbolPulse team will work together to complete the most in-depth and diverse coverage of the topic at hand.

“Tactics Arena: Manchester Derby Preview” was written in conjunction by Rahul Warrier, Nachiketh Ramesh and Jake Lane.