‘The mind games have started…’, and personally I’m bored already by Mancini and Fergie’s standard pre-derby game Jedi mind trick attempts. The Manchester City boss went with: "They are better than us at this moment… “They are used to playing these games in the title race for 20 years… “For this reason they have a small advantage”, while Sir Manchester United opted for "[City’s Champions League exit] gives them a full week to prepare for their League games and obviously they will be playing less games… From that disappointment [of playing no European football] though comes a definite advantage." Ok, fellas. Earlier in the week Fergie even tried to coax Manchester City into playing their big men up front, saying that United were struggling with balls into the area, and wouldn’t be able to handle the likes of Balotelli and Dzeko. Right… Tevez and Aguero it is then.
Will everyone stop getting injured!
A couple of months ago United’s defence was reduced to its bare bones, but rather than the recent and imminent returns of Jones, Smalling and Vidic respectively propelling the team to full strength, it seems the injury list has simply worked its way upfield- with the marauding conviction of a young Rio Ferdinand. With Nani and Kagawa already sidelined, the recent news that Valencia, Anderson and Cleverley are all out is a pain in the a**e, particularly as all three would have been pushing for a starting place against City. Valencia is out “for a few weeks” according to Ferguson, while Anderson’s hamstring injury acquired against Reading could see him out for even longer. The extent of Cleverley’s troublesome calf is unknown, but early noises from Old Trafford don’t sound optimistic. Come February, at this rate, Macheda will be leading the line up front on his own as the fearsome foursome sit it out in the stands.
It’s really not all bad though. Given the length of this injury list, it’s a testament to the strength of the squad that United can still boast a midfield capable of competing with Toure, Silva, Kolarov and co. Rooney’s adaptability comes in very handy during times like these, while in Carrick, Fletcher, Scholes, Young and Giggs there is enough quality and energy to pose City problems at the Etihad.
Fletcher must return to the United midfield
Given United’s reduced midfield numbers there are less tactical options than there would otherwise have been- adopting two wide men as against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in October, for instance, is out of the equation. While obviously the specific threats posed by Manchester City will be taken into consideration, it does appear that on Sunday it’s more a case of tailoring the team’s shape to the players available. It’s unlikely that Fergie will go with two strikers away against the league Champions- particularly with an instinctively attack-minded Rooney at the apex of a diamond midfield- so the chances are the en vogue 4-2-3-1 will be adopted.
It is my desperate hope that Ferguson has finally (!) learnt not to play Carrick and Scholes at the base of such a midfield, particularly in front of the solid but slow partnership of Evans and Ferdinand (who look likely to pair up on Sunday). I would like to see Fletcher brought in alongside Carrick, and having been rested against Cluj midweek, the indications are that he will play. Rooney has been deployed on the right side of midfield in the last two games, and this would suit the necessary inclusion of Scholes well, leaving Sat Nav to operate in the central position he knows so well. As we all know, he certainly won’t get forward from this position like the good old days but as long as it’s well communicated, Fletcher will be able to drive forward with Scholes covering him. This at least means if possession is lost Scholes is placed behind the ball rather than having to catch up with play- a hazardous scenario as previous away games have attested. Young looks set to play on the left of the advanced three in midfield, backing up Van Persie.
City look likely to go with the same 4-2-3-1 formation in a game that they will be desperate to win. Mancini loves 3-5-2 when looking to tighten things up, but if this season has taught us anything, it’s that the looser the better against United. I wouldn’t be surprised to see City morph into this shape with three at the back if they take a lead into the second half though. This potential switch would make Kolarov’s inclusion all the more likely (as he would then become the left touchline hugger with Zabaleta on the other side), who, one would imagine, will start in the advanced midfield trio alongside Tevez and Silva, backed up by Toure and Barry. Aguero will surely start up front.
Manchester United's big game mentality will match Manchester City's defensive solidity
Let’s look at some pertinent stats. United have lost two of their last three away games, conceding the first goal in each of the last five. In fact, against Villa they went two goals down and at Reading fell behind twice before clawing their way back. City are unbeaten at the Etihad in over a year and have conceded only 11 goals in the first 15 games, compared with United’s 21. Ouch. Suddenly the 5/4 odds for a City victory look very reasonable. Or do they? To me, these stats are relevant, but not the most relevant. Citing United’s position in the Premier League is hardly going to blow stat geeks away, but it’s highly significant nonetheless.
Firstly, it means United go into the game happy to concentrate their efforts on keeping things as tight as a student‘s Christmas present outgoings, Amazingly they only really did this- despite all the calls from within the camp to tighten things up-against West Ham at home, crowding out the base of midfield and keeping positional discipline. Carrick and Fletcher are ideal people for the role. Secondly, the league standings also reflect the fact that City- despite remaining unbeaten- having drawn six of their league matches played thus far; over a third no less. Admittedly, I still don’t feel massively optimistic about United snatching a win, but I genuinely think, given United’s ability to rise to the occasion- as demonstrated in their toughest away fixture of the season against Chelsea (before they imploded), City’s chances are being slightly exaggerated.