Daniel Storey's Manchester Derby debates: Can United’s counterpunch strategy floor Pep and City?

Daniel Storey breaks down the big talking points of the Manchester Derby.

Daniel Storey's Manchester Derby debates: Can United’s counterpunch strategy floor Pep and City?

Daniel Storey breaks down the big talking points of the Manchester Derby.

Will Manchester United continue their big-game record?

There have been precious few positive aspects of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s time in permanent charge of Manchester United, but their record against Big Six clubs has been largely excellent. In four matches against Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea, and Tottenham this season, United have taken eight points and are unbeaten.

They also beat second-placed Leicester City at home without conceding. There’s an obvious reason for that. Under Solskjaer this season, United have tended to play with a first-choice front three of Anthony Martial, Daniel James, and Marcus Rashford. All three are suited to playing on the counter-attack. Against better opposition who are happy to dominate possession, United get to use that strategy and have found joy with it.

Against weaker teams, they are forced to dominate possession and often struggle to break down deep defences. Their response is to overload the attack with midfielders pushing on, leaving them exposed to the counter. Against teams from outside the list above, United have won two of their 10 league games this season.

So how do Man City approach this game? Do they leave an extra player back to deal with the counter-attacking threat, or be confident that if their own attacking plan is coherent, then they have the qualities to make United’s counters redundant?

It’s hardly as if Solskjaer’s team have been playing well away from home; their only victory was at Norwich City.

Or do City continue their own home streak?

It’s no secret that Manchester City suddenly look a little vulnerable.

Six months ago the thought that this squad might be creaking and low on belief seemed absurd, but there are now significant issues in a number of positions. Aymeric Laporte’s injury has caused a central defensive headache that has required midfielders to fill the void. Sergio Aguero’s injury is infuriating but he was not in peak form even before he sustained it, and Raheem Sterling has also suffered a mini-dip.

But City have always been strong in their home games against their peers. Since April 2017, they have played 12 league games at home to Big Six clubs. Not only have they won 10 and drawn one of those, Pep Guardiola’s side have scored goals at a rate of 2.8 per game. City were beaten at Anfield, but that game aside, it is the Premier League’s ‘rest’ that have caused them more problems than the Big Six. This game provides them with a chance to pick up some steam heading into the Christmas period, as well as extinguish United’s new optimism following that midweek win over Tottenham.

Who does Pep Guardiola pick at full-back?

Marcus Rashford produced arguably the most complete performance of his career on Wednesday evening.

He scored both of United’s goals, won the penalty, hit the crossbar with a dipping shot, and generally took advantage of the space afforded to him by Serge Aurier’s tendency to push forward rather than defend.

That creates a dilemma for Guardiola. Manchester City have started with four different full-back combinations in their last four matches: Joao Cancelo and Benjamin Mendy, Kyle Walker and Mendy, Walker and Angelino, Cancelo and Angelino. Guardiola has long had an issue at left-back and would probably have made Cancelo his first-choice right-back by now if the Portuguese defender had settled in quicker. There is no plan set in stone, and that breeds uncertainty. Solskjaer will be acutely aware that Rashford and James are his most potent weapons against this City team, and that only becomes more likely with Guardiola unsure who to pick to face them. If Solskjaer is brave enough to leave that pair high up the pitch even when City have possession, they could cause significant problems in behind the full-backs.

Will McTominay be asked to patrol De Bruyne?

Scott McTominay is the unlikely protagonist of Solskajer’s reign.

When he was picked by Jose Mourinho, many assumed that the manager was sending a message to his superiors about the lack of central midfield options in his squad. But McTominay has emerged as a guaranteed starter in United’s side. He is living proof of the difference that hard work and commitment can make. We saw that difference again when they faced Tottenham on Wednesday. Mourinho got it badly wrong by picking a central midfield pair of Harry Winks and Moussa Sissoko, but seeing how much more comfortable Fred looked on the ball alongside McTominay was proof of the calming influence that the 22-year-old has now become.

On Saturday, McTominay faces the biggest test of his short career. He has started 30 league matches, but this will be his first in a Manchester derby. If, as expected, Guardiola picks David Silva alongside Rodri or Ilkay Gundogan in central midfield and allows Kevin de Bruyne to play a more attacking role, McTominay may well be given the task of patrolling the best midfielder in the country.

The key is to stay close to De Bruyne when he looks to find space in between the lines while also passing him on when he drifts wide rather than being dragged out of position. If De Bruyne manages that, it will create space for Bernardo or David Silva pushing on. Get it right, and McTominay will reinforce his cult hero status at United.

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