How can Manchester United win the Manchester Derby?

November 5th, 2021 | Football

This weekend one of the biggest fixtures in the Premier League takes place. The Manchester Derby at Old Trafford.   

Games between these two have always been important to locals and fans of both clubs, but over the last 15 years or so, the fixture has become a global football event and one of the most anticipated games the Premier League has to offer. These matches are normally decided by one or two goals, rarely becoming a cricket score for one of the Manchester clubs. On paper, City are favourites, but everyone knows form goes out the window in derbies.  

In this article I’m going to write how I believe Manchester Untied can beat Manchester City and claim the bragging rights.  

 So how are Manchester City playing at this moment in time? They’re still playing their possession, often striker-free, football, with the sky blues usually fielding as many as five creative players in the final-third, and having a sixth creative player in Cancelo, often deployed at left-back. City always try to overwhelm the opposition by creating a numerical advantage in midfield, something Guardiola often did with his famous Barcelona side around 2010. The centre-backs play a high-line and the full-backs often tuck in and sit in defensive midfield positions either side of City’s sole defensive midfielder, usually Rodri, in their 4-3-3 system, attacking in almost a 2-3-5. The inverted and slightly withdrawn full-backs recycle possession, rather than making overlaps or any kind of movement or runs into the final-third and help protect the Citizens on the counterattack. It also means City have three players at the base of their midfield and two centre-backs who can bring the ball out from the back. So straight away City will find it easy to dictate the game and have, as I’ve already mentioned, some protection if the opposition counterattacks, something they’ve been exposed with in the past. Going forwards City have their two no.8s stay around the edge of the box playing quick football with the two wide players and the false-nine, with all five players constantly moving around and interchanging positions. Usually City attack by keeping the ball moving and remaining patient, waiting for the right moment to play the killer pass, rather than trying to force the issue with a ridiculous pass or ambitious shot. The mentioned false-nine, which is a player playing in the centre-forward areas who drops deep and helps link-up the play whilst also interchanging positions with teammates, again helps City outnumber and overwhelm the opposition in midfield, specifically the no.10 areas. 

So how are Manchester United playing? The Red Devils have struggled to find an identity both offensively and defensively. Defensively it seems Solskjaer and his coaches are perhaps starting to sit-back more, but the team look a mess if they don’t have the chance to organise and get back into that defensive shape to sit back.  

The midfielders seem confused as to what their job is, do they sit back or do they join the attack?. I think it also shows a lack of confidence with the coaches in the last two games. After the Liverpool humiliation, they abandoned the preferred 4-2-3-1 and went to a 3-5-2 for the game against Tottenham Hotspur. Untied played well in London and came out convincing 3-0 winners. The Red Devils sat back in a 5-3-2 shape defensively, with minimal pressure on the ball, instead looking to close of passing lanes and limit space for the opposition to work in. The system worked well, with Cristiano Ronaldo benefiting from having someone closer to him who can take some opposition players out of the game, on this occasion Edinson Cavani, which helps create space for the Portuguese to exploit.  

So with United winning 3-0, looking solid defensively, decent in midfield and dangerous in attack, you’d think this back-three system was here to stay, which it was from the start against Atalanta. Solskjaer made changes three changes. He brought in Bailly for Lindelöf, who was out with a knock, Pogba for Fred and Rashford for Cavani. I had no problem with the changes and was happy to see the back-three had stayed. There was the slight tactical tweak with Bruno Fernandes being played slightly further forward in an inside-right position, and Marcus Rashford being played more as a left-winger, rather than centre-forward alongside Ronaldo. So instead of a 3-5-2 it was more of a 3-4-3. I agreed with these changes and felt it could help us close of Atalanta’s back-three when they pass out from the back and could potentially help track the runs of Atalanta’s wing-backs. But then Solskjaer and his coaches abandoned the plan after one injury.  

I understand Varane getting injured and having to go off is a blow and I know United were 1-0 down at the time, but to completely change the system when your starting to get back into the game and have just beaten Tottenham convincingly with a back-three system it, in my opinion, shows a bit of weakness, indecisiveness and perhaps lack of confidence in their tactics when they changed to a 4-2-3-1, with Mason Greenwood coming on for the injured Varane. The other point I’d like to make is that system and personnel, except Eric Bailly, was the same that lost 5-0 to Liverpool just over a week ago. I understand there wasn’t a natural replacement for Varane on the bench, with Lindelöf remaining in Manchester after picking up a knock in training, but there were options. Nemanja Matic, Luke Shaw, Scott McTominay, maybe even Aaron Wan-Bissaka could all have dropped into the back-three, with Dalot and Telles on the bench to play as a wing-back.  

United managed to draw the game 2-2 after a brilliant volley from Ronaldo levelled things up in injury-time. But United really didn’t play well. There was a lot of poor and average performances, with Eric Bailly and Cristiano Ronaldo being the only real standout performers are were the reason United won the game. The moment Varane was subbed off and United went to a back-four, they looked vulnerable. If it wasn’t for Eric Bailly and some poor decision-making and poor execution for Atalanta, United could could have easily conceded two, maybe even three, more goals. This again makes you question the change of system when your best defender has had to go off and Harry Maguire’s confidence seems low.  

So with that vulnerability defensively in mind, I believe United will, and should, go for a back-three against City. Pogba can’t play due to suspension, but he wouldn’t have deserved, based on form, to feature from the start anyway. I believe United should go for a 3-5-2, like the game against Tottenham, and try to limit space in the no.10 areas for Manchester City, where they looked their most dangerous. The three centre-backs will also limit space in the box and will need to look out for late runs from several City players, like Mahrez, Jesus or Sterling. I’d personally go for a Manchester Starting XI of De Gea, Shaw, Maguire, Lindelöf, Bailly, Wan-Bissaka, Fred, McTominay, Fernandes, Ronaldo and Sancho. I believe Lindelöf will be fit. If Lindelöf isn’t fit, I’d play Shaw in the back-three and Telles at left-wing-back. A player who will be vital in this game is Fred. 

The fact Fred was rested against Atalanta with the Manchester derby in mind shows you how highly Solskjaer and his coaches regard the Brazilian. I’m a big fan of Fred. I know he’ll bring energy, tenacity and a desire to win the ball back, all things which were missed against Atalanta and will be crucial in this game for breaking up the play. Being in the middle of the midfield three, McTominay will have to be disciplined and try to close off gaps rather than apply pressure and step out of position, which would leave space for City to exploit. 

I’ve gone for Sancho in the front-two over Rashford as I think Sancho can press City’s centre-backs and perhaps help push them back, whilst also winning fouls, helping United get up the pitch. Rashford would be the first sub I’d look to make, replacing one of the front-two. City have improved at defending counterattacks, but there will be chances for Rashford to run in behind, so his pace will be vital against a tiring City defence. And Sancho is deceptively quick, so still offers that counterattacking threat and will make City consider how many bodies they throw forwards.  

People may wonder why I wouldn’t start Rashford and utilise his pace from the beginning of the match. The reason is I think City’s vulnerability to counterattacks will be higher in the second-half and I also think it’s more important to have someone who can press from the front, which Sancho can do, he can also track back well if necessary. His pressing will also get the fans in Old Trafford going, which is important and will put pressure on City.  

You could say Martial would be a good option in the front-two as he’s got a good record against Manchester City and could offer pace from the start. I just don’t think Martial offers enough pressing and tracking back. I also don’t think Solskjaer wants to use him anyway, so if you were to start anyone else other than Sancho, you’d probably go for Greenwood, who I felt carried out his defensive duties against Atalanta well when he came on.  

To be clear I’d want Sancho alongside Ronaldo, rather than out-wide, applying pressure on City’s centre-backs and making space for Ronaldo and other teammates using his brilliant movement or trickery to pull defenders out of position. Another benefit of Sancho is he could almost man mark Cancelo, who’ll likely be at left-back, if the Portuguese is starting to influence the game going forwards, you’d also like to think Sancho’s ability, pace and ability alone would make Cancelo think twice when coming forwards.   

Edinson Cavani will also be one of the first subs Solskjaer and his coaches should look at. I’ve been lucky enough to have attended a number of games this season and whenever Edinson Cavani is introduced from the bench it gets the crowd going, which is vital in a game like this where if City have the ball for pretty much ten minutes straight, the crowd could grow anxious, with that anxiety reaching the players on the pitch. So a real fan favourite in Cavani coming on could help get the crowd going again, signing his song and apply, as I’ve already mentioned, pressure on City and give them an intimidating atmosphere to deal with. His experience, ability to press, fitness levels and heading from set-pieces both offensively and defensively will be crucial in a game like this, especially if United have taken the lead. So EL Matador would definitely be one of the first subs I’d look at, along with the mentioned Rashford.  

I think United’s best chance to win this game is to defend as a team, limit the space between the lines and be disciplined. With the ball they don’t need to counterattack. Obviously if the chance to do so arises, then go for it, but I want United to be brave on the ball, try and play through City and get up the pitch and cause them problems.  

I do feel sorry for Donny van De Beek, who really impacted the game against Atalanta and helped us win the game. I do hope he gets a lot more chances in the future, especially if Solskjaer and his coaches go back to a 4-2-3-1 on a permanent basis. If I was in charge, he’d be a starter in most games and could definitely make an impact in this one.   

I’ll be at the game on Saturday. My first Manchester derby! I hope United can get the win. Winning the game is far from impossible. The gap in terms of quality isn’t is big as some make out. The Red Devils can win this game. If they are two win there can’t be any passengers. There needs to be passion, grit, graft and determination from every red shirt on the Old Trafford turf if they are to get the derby day victory and a crucial three points. C’mon United!


Please note: The football articles that feature on this site are being written by Jack Dixon as part of his work experience. He is a teenager and looking for work experience within the football industry. He is currently studying for his media and art A-levels.

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