Manchester Derby: Will City Clinch the League Against United?
Usually when crosstown rivals Manchester United (+336) and Manchester City (-118) square off it’s the main event. That goes double when the teams occupy the top two spots in the table as they do this season. And yet, this season’s second Manchester Derby has a decidedly second rate feel to it. Despite sitting first and second in the Premier League, City’s lead is so large, 16 points with seven matches left to play, that all that’s really left for United is to try and keep them from clinching the title this weekend. As for City, they’re halfway through a Champions League quarterfinal tie against Liverpool and have to figure out how to haul themselves out of the shocking 3-0 deficit when the two teams meet on Tuesday. Saturday’s matchup is for bragging rights, but that’s all it’s for.
It would be tempting to look at City’s 3-0 loss at Anfield on Wednesday and interpret it as a sign of hope for United. City had looked so invincible this season, losing only once in the Premier League (also to Liverpool) that maybe the stunning defeat would both shake City’s confidence and also demonstrate for United how to expose the cracks in Pep Guardiola’s style.
That simply won’t work for Manchester United. The major reason is that City didn’t play like City on Wednesday. Guardiola sent out a team that played Aymeric Laporte, usually a central defender, at leftback and played four central midfielders with Ilkay Gundogan starting instead of winger Raheem Sterling. In an attempt to nullify Liverpool’s attack, Guardiola succeeded in instead nullifying his own team’s dynamic play. That’s not going to happen against United.
Manchester City adjusted because Liverpool are one of the few teams in the world that could go up and down the field with them, and would opt to play an open style that would let them run and gun with the favorites. Jose Mourinho and Manchester United won’t take that approach. Guardiola made a mistake because he was worried about keeping Liverpool from opening the game up. Mourinho is the exact opposite. When he’s managing against an elite side, he has an extremely long track record of trying to shut the game down completely.
United won’t be interested in having the ball, nor will they be concerned with springing numbers forward into attack. Instead they will seek to defend first and foremost, maintain their shape and keep City from exploiting pockets of space between midfield and defense. Any shot at victory will come from executing a handful of counterattacking situations they’ll generate by playing the ball long through striker Romelu Lukaku and beating City down the field with direct counterattacks. It’s the Mourinho way.
That, of course, is what teams have been trying and failing to do to City all season. Nobody is better at turning big games into mud than Mourinho, but City have simply been impervious to that approach all season. Even if United play well, which hasn’t been a guarantee this season despite their record, their preferred defensive approach is not one that City are particularly vulnerable to. And, unlike with Liverpool, there’s no reason to suspect City will change their basic approach in any real way.
It’s simply too hard to contain an attack which flows through David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne in midfield before being sprayed out to Leroy Sane (pictured above) and Raheem Sterling on the wings who can in turn attack the box and play dangerous cutbacks and low crosses from all sorts of attacking areas. United will hope that by dropping their wingers deep, and keeping their midfielders close they’ll be able to close the avenues of City’s attack. But City just cram too much attacking talent onto the field to make defending that deep for long periods of time a good decision.
Manchester City might be more focused on Tuesday than Saturday, but that doesn’t change the fact that this season Pep Guardiola’s teams has simply been much better than Jose Mourinho’s. The battle for bragging rights is likely to have the same outcome as the season at large. City will simply overwhelm their rivals.
All odds current as of Friday afternoon.