“It’s City, isn’t it? They are a small club, with a small mentality. All they can talk about is Manchester United, that’s all they’ve done and they can’t get away from it.”
If you weren’t keeping up with the evolution of the premier league in the past decade, you’d be forgiven for thinking Sir Alex Ferguson was referring to Salford City FC in that quote.
Except you’d be wrong. Fergie meant every word when he labelled Manchester City as United’s mere noisy neighbours. In retrospect, He couldn’t have been more wrong.
For one, the present day City looks nothing close to any of the adjectives Fergie used in that quote. In fact, City have become virtually everything United used to be and – bar the champions league – won everything United prided itself on winning.
On the pitch, it’s no longer Man Utd’s teamsheet that sends shivers down opposition’s spine and it’s doubtful if City would swap any of its regulars for United’s.
They have arguably the best players and manager, play the best football and are always looking to make things happen – constantly being proactive, fearless, menacing and domineering at any ground – rather than wait for it to
The record-smashing Premier League champions were not only last season’s top scorers (106) but also had the meanest defence (27) and are already on the path of bettering those records. This season alone, they’ve scored the most goals (33) and conceded the least (4). These are records United fans feel they, rather than their city rivals, should possess.
Majority of them feel their team should play exactly the way City does. That may not happen, at least under José Mourinho. This is a United team trying to accept a new reality under the Portuguese. A reality that they aren’t where they used to be and opponents are going to see them as such.
Mourinho has successfully inculcated into them the fact they have to accept the underdog tag against fellow top teams. After all, they haven’t won the league title in six years. They finished second only once in that period as a matter of seriousness.
It’s not all doom and gloom for United, however. Mourinho’s teams thrive in adversity, in being underestimated and being the underdog. His Chelsea (in his first spell), Inter Milan and Real Madrid teams needn’t the ball every minute of the 90 to punish you. Even this United team have shown attributes of a typical José juggernaut albeit infrequently.
Defence used to be his team’s area of strength but even that narrative is changing gradually. United have kept only 3 sheets in 16 matches across all competitions this season but save for three games, they’ve scored in virtually all sixteen.
United can draw a lot of positives from their most recent meetings with fellow top-prize contenders. They were on the threshold of claiming a famous victory against Chelsea before Barkley stole a point for the blues in the dying seconds at Stamford Bridge.
Against Chelsea that day, United managed just 7 shots (4 on target), 37% of the possession and completed just a little over half the passes Chelsea managed. What was key, however, was United’s decisiveness when they chose to go forward, causing Chelsea all sort of problems in a twenty-minute spell of pressure.
Mata exploited Alonso’s defensive unawareness for the second goal while the first came from a similar angle, Ashley Young’s weak shot taking two wicked deflections to set up nicely for Anthony Martial. Such was Mourinho’s tactical and inspirational canniness to spot such loopholes and adjust his approach accordingly at halftime.
City have an Alonso of their own in Benjamin Mendy, dangerous going forward but negligent in his primary duty and in the hefty Frenchman Mourinho may just have found the perfect spot to pick apart in City’s defence and he has the players to execute such plans.
The Cityzens like to build attacks from the back with Fernandinho going deep to receive the ball, consistently raising his head up to find creative players to initiate play. When put under pressure and a David Silva or Bernardo is not within reach, he’d most likely look to the fullbacks or the Goalkeeper outrightly rather than wiggle his way out of such adversity.
Marcus Rashford can act as that pressure cooker on Fernandinho with Martial and Sanchez/Mata looking to pounce on any miskick. The skill and shrewdness of Martial would be particularly essential against a City team so characteristic in stifling possession out of opponents. It remains unclear which personnel Guardiola would call on to face Mourinho.
What looks doubtless, however, is that City would hoard possession, fashion out more chances and stay on the front foot for the major parts of the game. The Red Devils would have to be effective – as they’ve been in recent games – when they get to the blues final third and hope that City are as profligate in front of goals as they were when they met last April.
United showed at the Allianz Stadium in Turin on Wednesday that they can withstand constant attacking pressure and turn up the heat on their opponent within a short period of attacking spell. They’d indeed need to exhibit those traits once more on Sunday and hope to have in large quantity the luck that such strategy requires.