Sunday afternoon sees the first Manchester derby of the season, a game that brings the Premier League’s best attack, in Manchester City, to the Old Trafford stage, but without two of their main protagonists.
Manchester United are deprived only of their long-term absentees Luke Shaw and Paddy McNair as well as Ashley Young who isn’t yet ready for a return to first team action.
City, on the other hand, are without six-goal Sergio Aguero and six-assist David Silva. So it’s City’s injuries that dominate the pre-match thinking.
But in big games like this one, the match is usually won and lost in key battlegrounds, and the injuries to City’s key players has created different problems for United to deal with.
One criticism often levelled at Louis van Gaal is that he is married to his own system and his own views of how the game should be played, that he is so attached to his particular quest for footballing Nirvana that he won’t change his tactics even if that’s the only way he can beat the opposition.
We all know by now that Van Gaal likes his teams to keep the ball, and his perfect game is to dominate possession and play the majority of the game in the opponents’ final third.
They’ll pass it around and look for an opening and the centre backs will push up and defend with a high line. That way, if the attackers lose the ball, the pitch is made small, giving the midfielders the opportunity to press the opposition and stop them from getting a quick counter attack.
Against Arsenal, however, United didn’t have enough of the ball early on to make that work. Bastian Schweinsteiger, who was clearly told to press Santi Cazorla and make sure he didn’t have time to calculate his passes, was then in a position where he had almost the whole midfield to cover.
United’s defence were pegged back towards their own goal line, and Cazorla had the run of the midfield. To make matters worse, Schweinsteiger is the wrong side of 30, so any kind of pressing is harder for him than it used to be, but having to run around the whole of the midfield for the entire first half must have been tiring.
Against City, however, don’t expect Van Gaal to have that problem. Although City, United and Arsenal are the three teams to keep the most possession so far in the Premier League this season, City will probably be happy to soak up the pressure before countering, with pace and precision their biggest weapons.
Although Manuel Pellegrini loves to attack, he’ll be more than happy to give up the possession battle and attack when they can if it means getting into position to counter with real purpose.
And this is where City could use the loss of Silva to their advantage. His absence means that City are likely to start with De Bruyne, Sterling and Navas in behind Wilfried Bony.
Despite their possession stats, City are more adept on the counter than they are at creating openings with slow build-up play. Yaya Toure is more impactful when he’s surging forward with the ball than he is when he’s playing the link between defence and a slow and patient attack. There, he can’t be as direct as he can be when City are on the break.
All of this means that United’s defence will have to worry more about their attackers losing the ball than about keeping solid and compact to stop City from breaking them down with threaded passes and perfectly timed runs.
The pressing that Van Gaal’s United will look to do if they lose possession won’t really have the same effect against an opposition with this mentality than against a team who won’t simply look to pass their way up the pitch. And City have the pace to punish United’s defence for playing a high line.
But United’s defence will have to deal with more than just pace. City’s attacking options on Sunday will also give Van Gaal two selection problems at the back. One is indeed the pace of Navas and Sterling, but the other is the strength and aerial threat of Wilfried Bony who will surely start in the absence of Sergio Aguero.
In midweek, City used Sterling centrally in the first half and pushing Kevin De Bruyne out on the left, before switching them back in the second half.
Pellegrini attempted to play with a solid 4-4-2 when out of possession against Sevilla, and De Bruyne found himself covering for Bacary Sagna on the left wing with Raheem Sterling helping Wilfried Bony up front.
De Bruyne’s higher defensive work-rate made the choice for Pellegrini, because he knew that in the Champions League he’d have to play a more cautious game.
Van Gaal too played a more cautious game in midweek. Antonio Valencia was left out of the full back position and Marcos Rojo was preferred. On Sunday, the Dutch coach might want to make the same choice again in order to deal with City’s counter-attacking pace.
It will be interesting to see who gets the nod in Van Gaal’s defence on Sunday, and the starting lineup will give some indication of how worried Louis Van Gaal is about defending against City, and how adventurous he’s willing to be.
If Valencia starts and Van Gaal sends his full backs forward in search of a goals, will they be worried about leaving the pace of Sterling and Navas so much space in behind? And if Rojo starts, will having a more defensive full back tempt City’s own full backs to be bold and overlap more often?
The second battleground is Aguero’s replacement, Wilfried Bony. The Ivorian striker scored two goals in his last Premier League outing against Bournemouth, and one the time before that against Newcastle, so he’s in a rich vein of goalscoring form.
However, what’s interesting is how City can attempt to get crosses into the box now that Aguero won’t be starting. Bony is a different proposition to the Argentinian, and one that might worry United.
Manchester United’s defence has been much improved this season given that it looked so shaky at times last year. Chris Smalling and Daley Blind have formed a solid partnership at the heart of the defence. Blind is the passer, the ball-playing defender, and Smalling the physical one.
But against Everton and again against CSKA Moscow, Louis Van Gaal has preferred Phil Jones to Blind and played the England international alongside Smalling.
Earlier this season, United lost away to Swansea, and that day Bafetimbi Gomis bullied the much less physical Daley Blind.
Against Everton, however, the more physically strong partnership of Jones and Smalling kept Everton’s hulking striker Romelu Lukaku quiet, so maybe that will be the partnership for United this weekend as they look to keep City under wraps too.
But if Van Gaal plays with Jones and Smalling, he’ll lose the calmness and passing range of Daley Blind. Last season, it was Michael Carrick’s job to play as the midfield anchor, but he was also told to drop between the centre backs in order to take the ball and start attacks from deep.
Last season, United had a 72% win ratio with Carrick in the starting 11, and without him it was only 35%. That ability to calmly pass the ball out from the back is vital to United’s style of play, and if Van Gaal wants to neutralise the threat posed by Wilfried Bony by playing both Smalling and Jones, he’ll have to employ Carrick in a similar role to last year if he also wants United to be effective when building their attacks.
This game won’t decide where the title goes come May, but defeat for either team would certainly be a blow, and for Manchester United, defeat at home to a City side missing Aguero and Silva would be psychologically damaging too.
Even though City are weakened by injuries they still have a formidable forward line. But because they’re weakened, they are that little bit less predictable. Bony, De Bruyne and Sterling haven’t played enough games for City to be predictable, but already we know they’re quality players.
Van Gaal has to try to anticipate how City will attack so that he can sort out his own defence. But in picking his defence, Van Gaal might just weaken his own attack.
This is the biggest Manchester derby since December 2012 and Robin Van Persie’s injury time winner, but it’s also the most tactically interesting derby in quite some time too.