Manchester derby: The questions Manchester United and Manchester City must answer
It is beyond question that in the decade since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, Manchester City have been better than Manchester United.
City have won six Premier League titles in that time, United have never even challenged.
Under Pep Guardiola, the Blues completed a domestic Treble in 2018-19 and the real one last season, accounting for United in the FA Cup final thanks to two goals from Ilkay Gundogan.
United have never finished above City in that time – they did finish level on points in 2015-16 but both were well behind eventual champions Leicester. The average points gap between them in the past 10 years is 16.5. No matter what the outcome at Old Trafford on Sunday, Guardiola’s side will still be above Erik ten Hag’s in the table.
Yet, despite their superiority, City have only recorded three derby doubles against United in the Premier League during that time. The number of wins in the past 20 league meetings stands at 10-7 to City.
So the outcome of the latest all-Manchester skirmish at Old Trafford is not a foregone conclusion, even without the air of uncertainty that hangs over both sides going into Sunday’s game.
‘We just need to be close’
Look at the table and the idea of finding issues around Manchester City at present feels a bit bizarre.
They were top until unbeaten Tottenham defeated Fulham on Monday night and striker Erling Haaland is leading the way in the Golden Boot standings.
Even if they lose at Old Trafford, City would have more points after 10 games than in the first two of their current run of three successive titles, which they are aiming to make four – something that has never been done in the history of the English game.
Maybe it is simply a comparison with their own exceptionally high standards or the draining effects of last season, but, domestically at least, there is certainly an air of Guardiola’s side still trying to find their feet.
“The Treble has a lot of influence on all of us, me included,” said Guardiola after the recent win over Brighton.
“I said many times, no one has won four in a row and it will be difficult for us.
“We just need to be there, close, and arrive in the final moments at the end of the season near to our opponents and try again.”
Replacing Rodri and Grealish concerns
Yet the three losses that coincided with Rodri’s suspension, coupled with Kevin de Bruyne’s latest lengthy injury absence, has led to increased scrutiny and, for some, concern about what would happen if the Spain midfielder was missing for any significant length of time.
Kalvin Phillips remains a peripheral figure and of the two midfielders Guardiola spent £78m on this summer, Matheus Nunes is still to properly adapt following his deadline-day move from Wolves, while, after an excellent start to his City career, Mateo Kovacic’s form has dipped and he gave the ball away far too often in the defeat at Molineux.
Fellow new arrival Jeremy Doku has caught the eye but that has only drawn attention to Jack Grealish, who has only started two Premier League games this season, and none since he suffered a dead leg at Sheffield United in August so severe it left him on crutches.
Given Grealish ‘celebrated’ City’s historic Treble rather more extensively, publicly, than most of his team-mates, there have been suggestions he has fallen out of favour with Guardiola and Doku is now first choice for the wide berth on the left.
Guardiola is having none of it.
“I don’t have one doubt about Jack and his quality and what he has done for us since he arrived, especially last season,” he said.
“He started this season a bit late, he had a big impact against Sheffield United and then had one month off.
“His body needs rhythm because he’s strong. He’s not like Phil [Foden] or Bernardo [Silva] who only need two or three training sessions.
“He is incredibly focused to get back and he will be back. We need him and we are going to use him when we believe he is going to help us. I’m calm and confident that he is an incredibly important player for us.”
How do you solve a problem like Mount?
Any problems City have are very much of the first world variety compared to United.
Ten Hag’s side are on a run of three successive wins. The victories over Brentford, Sheffield United and FC Copenhagen have certainly been dramatic thanks to a combination of very late goals and penalty saves, but they have also been viewed as simply papering over some pretty big cracks.
Haaland’s nine goals this term equal the combined tally of all United’s attacking players. Brazilian midfielder Casemiro is top scorer with four. Harry Maguire’s crucial header against Copenhagen on Tuesday equalled Marcus Rashford’s total for the season so far.
Rashford is not alone in being well off the pace, a long way off the levels that brought him a career-high 30 goals in all competitions last term. The sight of him running at the Copenhagen goal at pace on Tuesday then mis-controlling the ball, which ran out for a goal-kick, was slightly sad.
But at least the 25-year-old is threatening to make an impact. His England team-mate Mason Mount isn’t even doing that.
In seven appearances so far since his £55m move from Chelsea, Mount is yet to score and has one assist – in the EFL Cup against Crystal Palace – to his name. Against Copenhagen, while Christian Eriksen, Alejandro Garnacho and Anthony Martial were introduced, Mount remained on the bench.
“He can be a big part of what we are creating,” Ten Hag told the club’s official magazine earlier this month. “He can supply, make the connections, and the link-ups for those in the front line. When we get better connections, that will grow.”
The problem for Mount is those connections are not obvious.
On Tuesday, when United needed someone to be secure in possession and create space, having completely failed to do so before the break, Eriksen was the obvious replacement and the Dane executed the task expertly.
United’s additional issues
With Casemiro available after injury and suspension, the temptation for Ten Hag must be to bring the Brazilian back against City, even though his performances this season, like Rashford’s, have been way off the standard he set last term.
What he has is vast experience and, as outlined, he also provides a goal threat.
But who plays with him? As with Nunes at City, Sofyan Amrabat is still adapting after his deadline day arrival, Scott McTominay seems to have more impact off the bench and the same can also be said of Eriksen.
But there are other problems too. Neither full-back position generates particular confidence – Diogo Dalot’s control was poor against Copenhagen and Sergio Reguilon was caught out of position too often – and while Rasmus Hojlund is working hard, he hasn’t looked a particular goal threat.
Summing up Tuesday’s game, Ten Hag said the first half was “no good” and finished off by saying his side had “a narrow escape” against Copenhagen.
Against significantly better opponents in City, they are unlikely to get away with the same kind of performance level again.