There have been three occasions on which Manchester City has visited Old Trafford with the clubs occupying the top two spots in the Premier League. Yet, the latest instalment has an entirely different narrative to it than those that proceeded.
Fluid and efficient aren’t adjectives often used to describe Manchester United, at least not this season, but it would be a fine summary of Sunday afternoon’s win over Burnley. Mourinho’s men barely had a moment to digest Thursday night’s Europa League before making the relatively short journey north to Burnley. Save for injuries, it was a good week domestically and in Europe.
Manchester United’s victory over Burnley on Sunday brings José Mourinho’s side to within a point of Manchester City in the fight for Champions League places. After all, it may be just two from four, with only one of City, United, Liverpool or Arsenal likely to make it to Europe’s top table next season. Thursday’s clash may not come in the midst of a fight for the league title, but it is the most important derby for some time. Victory for Mourinho’s side at the Etihad will push the Reds into the top four for the first time in 2017; a City win might secure Pep Guardiola’s side Champions League football. But who has the advantage on Thursday? Rant investigates…
Watching Manchester United in the post Sir Alex Ferguson era is very much like Groundhog Day, the Bill Murray film of the 1990s in which the comedian is stuck in a loop, broken not even by death. There is a very definite cycle in the years since the Scot’s retirement, teetering between extreme optimism and crushing disappointment. It doesn’t seem like the trend will be broken any time soon.
Derby week is done, with round one taken by United’s noisy neighbours as the world’s gaze focused on Manchester for the season’s most anticipated match. Manchester City won a tough battle 2-1, with an electric opening period enough to secure Pep Guardiola victory at Old Trafford.
It’s been a lean year in Manchester. Whether Red or Sky Blue, struggles abound in England’s North-West. Rivals for more than a century, the Premier League’s two most financially powerful clubs share the common trait of suffering through on-the-field issues that are not easily fixed. For all the money on show neither side seems capable of buying its way up the table, nor capturing fourth place and with it the Champions League.
It wasn’t so long ago that English football was in awe of Manchester’s clubs. For a time the city had legitimate claim to being the world’s capital of football, with two powerhouse clubs trading titles for four years. The United-City rivalry has been at the centre of some of the best conclusions to a Premier League season in recent years, yet, as Manchester United prepares to travel across town to face neighbours City on Sunday, the fixture is hardly talk of the town, let alone the nation.
Louis van Gaal has undertaken ‘projects’ at some of the biggest clubs in the world. His popularity is certainly not universal at any of them, but there’s no doubt that the Dutchman left his mark at Barcelona, Bayern Munich and now Manchester United. There’s no denying Van Gaal has provided the foundations on which some of those clubs stand today.
Pep Guardiola has followed in Van Gaal’s footsteps, and indeed improved on them, in Catalunya and Bavaria. Could lightning strike a third time in Manchester? It certainly should.
With Guardiola set to announce his plans for 2016 and beyond next week, rumours abound as to where the Spaniard will set sail next. England is the consensus, with the Manchester clubs seemingly favourites despite Jose Mourinho’s dismissal at Chelsea this week.
Questions remain, of course. Would Pep’s style adapt to English football; could he revolutionise the game in the Premier League as he has in Spain and Germany?
Yet, there’s the common misconception that Guardiola shares Van Gaal’s love of possession and, frankly, possession for the sake of it. Certainly, passing teams to death is the perception that supporters and analysts have gained when watching United this season. Leading the league in sideways pass percentage, backwards pass percentage and, of course, possession itself, United dominates the ball, but not the league table. In truth, the man who is leading Munich to another Bundesliga title shares little of that ideal.
“I loathe all that passing for the sake of it,” he said last year. “All that tiki-taka. It’s so much rubbish and has no purpose. You have to pass the ball with a clear intention, with the aim of making it into the opposition’s goal.
“It’s not about passing for the sake of it. Don’t believe what people say. Barça didn’t do tiki-taka! It’s completely made up! Don’t believe a word of it!”
Guardiola’s Catalan side was a ruthless attacking outfit whose effortless possession of the ball cut up almost every opponent. Rather than Van Gaal’s sometimes pedestrian passing, the Spaniard’s version of the Blaugrana was arguably the best side of the modern era. Barça moved the ball quickly – United the victim in two breathtaking displays in the 2009 and 2011 Champions League finals.
“In all team sports, the secret is to overload one side of the pitch so that the opponent must tilt its own defence to cope,” Pep explained. “You overload on one side and draw them in so that they leave the other side weak. And when we’ve done all that, we attack and score from the other side.
“That’s why you have to pass the ball, but only if you’re doing it with a clear intention. It’s only to overload the opponent, to draw them in and then to hit them with the sucker punch. That’s what our game needs to be. Nothing to do with tiki-taka.”
In May of 2011 Guardiola sat in the stands watching United in the Champions League Semi-Finals. Weeks later his side would destroy the Red Devils in the final.
“I like this atmosphere. I could see myself coaching here one day,” he told friend Manuel Estiarte as he watched United sweep aside Schalke. The sentiment was echoed by journalist Graham Hunter this week, one of the more credible sources of news in Spain. Hunter is adamant that Guardiola wants to try his hand managing United after a transfer to Old Trafford fell through late in his playing career.
“If the cards fall his way, his wish is to sample life at Manchester United for a variety of reasons,” said Hunter. “The move didn’t happen but when he’s come back to Manchester subsequently he’s looked at the Old Trafford atmosphere, the legends and he has felt ‘this is right for me’.”
This chips, it seems, could fall United’s way. Unfortunately for those who would like to see Guardiola arrive at United there are many more factors at play, and football is rarely that simple, especially when it comes to the Reds.
The Citizens’ move for Pep has been the “worst kept secret in football” for some time now. That said, with admirers from the rest of England’s giants also in play, perhaps Guardiola’s move to the Etihad is no longer so certain. City has always felt the presence of Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain in the management hierarchy gives the club an inside track in the pursuit of their man. The Blues’ unlimited chequebook and star-studded squad has to appeal, and the club has proven in recent times that it has a little more patience with managerial appointments. There’s certainly a strong chance that a deal may already be in place.
Mourinho’s departure from the Blues, with Guardiola’s future set to be announced, could be coincidental or perfectly timed. Chelsea’s admiration is long-standing, with Roman Abramovich rumoured to have dreamt that his side might one day resemble the footballing beauty of Barcelona in Pep’s pomp.
However, the Chelsea job does not offer the stability of others – since 2004 no manager has lasted at the club more than three years, while nine coaches in eight seasons is something of an embarrassing track record.
The north Londoners represent a dark horse in this race. Guardiola’s attractive football, sense of style, and knowledge of culture and history fits well with Arsenal’s proposition. Arsene Wenger’s time at the club is surely winding down, and the Gunners would certainly consider making his retirement date official if it meant landing the Spaniard. Arsenal doesn’t possess the financial clout of other contenders, but it’s a club with a money-making new stadium, while the new Premier League TV deal offers incredible spending power. Guardiola’s probable departure from Munich could have come at the perfect time.
Despite the debate about United’s incumbent manager and playing squad, almost anyone with an opinion on the situation agrees that the club has its share of problems. Rumours about the Dutchman’s future are rife, and there is no doubt that Van Gaal is under serious pressure to deliver results. Goals have dried up and the team is now without a win in the past five games.
Still, the club seems to be standing by the manager and is prepared to back him in the market in January. Yet, a growing section of the fanbase has already turned on Van Gaal and, if rumours are true, so have some in his playing squad.
Players are physically exhausted by the training regime, whilst some feel their talents are stifled by Van Gaal’s tactics. Ed Woodward has briefed that the club is prepared to back him with continued spending, but with every passing result the value of the investment in such bland performances comes into question.
Woodward has also briefed that he believes Guardiola’s future is already determined – one factor, perhaps, why the club is backing Van Gaal so strongly. Yet, with Carlo Ancelotti, Mourinho and potentially Guardiola on the market this summer, the club has some forward thinking to undertake if it is serious about progressing back into the élite.
Guardiola would certainly improve on the foundations the Dutchman has created. The Spaniard’s football would be a vast improvement, while Pep offers the promise of attracting high-calibre players.
Van Gaal’s progress has been slower than expected, albeit through a significant rebuild. But the club would surely be remiss not to consider the future. The right decision isn’t always clear, but to many Guardiola’s capture represents a no brainer.
Van Gaal has been a terrific manager over the past quarter-century; Guardiola is an upgrade.United cannot afford to miss out on his services for a second time.
Manchester United’s six-game winning streak – in the Premier League at least – is remarkable for many reasons. Not least because this is now a United side high on belief, quick in the pass and effortlessly creative – three qualities that Louis van Gaal’s side has infrequently demonstrated this season. And yet, save for defeat against Arsenal in the FA Cup, United’s winning streak has ushered in a bold new era at United. Sunday’s victory over Manchester City emphasised United’s metamorphosis; next weekend’s trip to Chelsea could well confirm the club’s rebirth.
City’s defeat is a case in point. It is not just that Van Gaal’s side dominated – City’s two Sergio Agüero goals flattered the visitors – but that United secured three points with such effortless grace. With more clinical finishing the home side could have bettered the six goals City infamously scored at Old Trafford in October 2011. Van Gaal’s side not only wanted victory more, but backed up desire with outstanding execution.
The Blues dished out humiliating defeat to United too often in recent seasons. Not least four Premier League victories in a row before Sunday and an aggregated scoreline in that period of 10 goals to two. That’s to say little of the aforementioned six scored against 10-man United four years ago.
This period of domination has followed City’s vast expenditure in the transfer market – one that has also fuelled two Premier League titles over the past three seasons. By contrast United’s decline was slow and then very quick – first starved of funds under the Glazer family’s ownership and then decimated by David Moyes ineptitude. Game after what seemed to be too many games City’s midfield bullied a meek United offering.
There was none of that on Sunday though, with United out-passing, thinking and working City. This was both a tactical masterclass by Van Gaal and an expression of a work-ethic that always has supporters on their feet.
In fact, just as City seemed to put aside recent poor form to start brightly, United once again demonstrated the strength of mental fortitude that Moyes so acutely destroyed and Van Gaal has rebuilt. After nine minutes the Blues were on top, but it says much that City never had it so good again. Save for Agüero’s late goal, Van Gaal’s side remained dominant to the last.
Little wonder Van Gaal was delighted with victory – an emphatic result and a performance that thoroughly vindicates the Dutchman’s methods. Special praise too for the strength of character to come back from Agüero’s early strike.
“We have showed that often,” said Van Gaal on United’s recovery. “I have more than once given compliments to my players about that because, in all the matches, we are going until the end with a great spirit and we have shown that against City.
“We didn’t start so well, Manchester City had the better start, but then we came back into the game because of the assist of David De Gea, more or less, for the first goal for Ashley Young. Then we gained confidence and we performed our game-plan much more. In the second half, we played very well with a lot of pace in our game. I was very pleased with the second half.”
Technically the home side was far superior too. While Juan Mata and Ander Herrera controlled the game with a nuanced range of passing from the right, it was Ashley Young and Marouane Fellaini that earned praise for taking full advantage of City’s weaknesses down United’s left. Michael Carrick was again outstanding as United’s deep-lying creative instigator.
Young’s pace and direct running seemingly compliment the out-ball offered by Fellaini. The Belgian won nine headers on Sunday, with United deploying the long-ball 15 per cent of the time – a ratio that is high in comparison to other Champions League chasing sides. Yet, in contrast to the aimless long-balls that too often creeped into United’s game during the winter, this time the Reds exploited City’s lack of height at full-back and failure to adequately cover the channels.
“Ashley was Man of the Match and I think that was right,” confirmed Van Gaal in the aftermath. “If I had to choose, I would have chosen him. Also Fellaini is very important in our game-plan and I’m very pleased that he plays for Manchester United and no-one else.”
The victory leaves United four points ahead of City with just six games to play and 11 beyond Liverpool. Champions League football next season is almost guaranteed, although United will benefit much from finishing ahead of City, Arsenal or both to avoid an early-season play-off next August. Second or third would also earn United a healthier share of England’s media pool from European games – an incentive for the bean counters as much as the ego.
Momentum also counts for much. United has it, of course, although games against Chelsea, Everton, Crystal Palace and Arsenal offer no guarantee of points. After all, three of those games come away from the safety of Old Trafford, where United has gained 43 of 65 points this season.
The first of that sequence is against Chelsea next weekend. Indeed, United’s trip to Stanford Bridge is perhaps the truest barometer of progression. The Reds’ improvement in the past two months under Van Gaal has been dramatic, but the Londoners are seven points clear for a reason and superbly effective at home. José Mourniho’s side is yet to lose at Stamford Bridge in the league this season and boasts both the best home record and best home defensive record.
Van Gaal’s team is also unlikely to enjoy the bulk of possession next Saturday – a stat recorded at more than 55 per cent against City – nor control midfield so easily. After all, Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic advance a formidable pairing, especially at home. United will, however, benefit from Diego Costa’s absence, while understudy Loïc Remy is also doubtful with injury.
In the big picture Saturday’s game may count for little. Few believe Chelsea will lose the title now, nor that Liverpool will make up the 12 points required on United over the next six games. Yet, there is that momentum thing again. Victory at Stamford Bridge might just be a season-defining statement ahead of what is likely to be another busy transfer window.
Then there is the small matter of supporters’ pride. Reds have enjoyed just two victories at Stamford Bridge in the past decade. With one demon slain last Sunday, United’s bête noire of the Premier League era lies in wait. Van Gaal will have little doubt that United’s fans are owed a result in the capital.
“I am very pleased for the fans of course, because they have supported us when the results were not so good and now they are very good,” concluded Van Gaal on Sunday. “I’m very happy for the fans that they can walk through the streets without being embarrassed! They can go on the streets, hat up, and they can say now ‘we are, this year, the better team’.”
United’s performance next weekend may well add to that feeling.
This has not been a kind fixture for Manchester United fans of late. After all, the Blues from east of the city have come to dominate, with Abu Dhabi’s riches underpinning four victories in a row and six in the past 10 league matches between these sides. It is a record that few United supporters can stomach, let alone a manager who oversaw defeat at Eastlands earlier this season. Little wonder Louis van Gaal “dreams” of derby victory on Sunday – a win that would give United a four point Premier League margin over the Blues with the clock ticking down on the race for European football.
Indeed, City’s dominance of late – extending to a second Premier League title in three years last May – renders all the more stark the contrasting fortunes in the teams’ form over the past two months. United, emboldened by five Premier League victories in a row, start Sunday’s Old Trafford match as favourites; a rare position in recent years.
City, by contrast, has suffered four league defeats in the past 10; a run of form that almost certainly means a trophyless season and Manuel Pellegrini’s summer dismissal. Such is the way in east Manchester, where the thirst for success is driven by more than £1 billion ploughed into the club by Sheihk Mansour’s family over the past seven years.
Van Gaal, meanwhile, has overcome a poor early season start and a major injury crisis to stamp his mark on this side. For so much of the campaign United has been one of the Premier League’s less inspiring sides – at least of those in the top half. No longer, with the Dutchman’s team enjoying vibrant attacking performances in victory over Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa in the past month. It is a run of form that has supporters thinking of topping the Blues come May, let alone Sunday.
“I dream of it,” said the veteran coach. “Every player shall dream of victory. I have been thinking with my staff and my players already for many days about how we have to beat Manchester City. You are always in that process of how to beat your next opponent.
“You want to win because it is a big step in the table. When you win, third place is reachable and months ago nobody was thinking we could do it. Third position in the table is also good because you have certainly qualified for the Champions League and we would do better than the goal we set in pre-season.”
It is dream shared by United fans too long usurped by City’s new-found dominance. The Blues have not only won four of these fixtures on the bounce, but by an aggregate score of 10 goals to United’s two. For a club of United’s standing it is not an edifying record.
“When you are walking the streets of Manchester everybody is talking about the derby and also the players,” added Van Gaal. “They understand the meaning of a Manchester United victory over Manchester City. They know and I know it, so it’s very important. I don’t have time to visit the city so much. But when I’m there, the fans are talking about the derby. In football you play for the fans and I hope we can give our fans the victory.”
United’s standing as favourites is based on strong form over the past two months and a clean bill of squad health, save for Robin van Persie’s ongoing ankle injury. That problem will keep the Dutchman out of Sunday’s fixture, while Luke Shaw is not yet fit enough to return. Johnny Evans serves the fifth of a six-match suspension, but Chris Smalling should be available. It would be a chance, perhaps, for the Englishman to redeem the bone-headed red card received in the fixture at the Etihad Stadium earlier this season.
Elsewhere, the manager is likely to field a similar side to the one that secured victory against Villa last weekend, with Daley Blind again deputising at left-back, with Juan Mata, Ander Herrera, Marouanne Fellani and Michael Carrick deployed as an in-form midfield quintet.
Meanwhile, Van Gaal offered no guarantees that Angel di Maria will return despite A positive substitute performance against Villa. The Argentinian may yet be recalled at Ashley Young’s expense, although the Englishman’s good form this season suggests otherwise. Still, it is this competition for places that is driving higher standards, claims the Dutchman.
“Not only Angel Di Maria, but every player who is training in the first squad are pushing because they want to do their utmost. I played 11 against 11 today and the team in white was very good. The white team was not the basic line-up, so they are pushing always and I like that. I said that to all of the players, that I like the fighting spirit of every one of them.”
Meanwhile, Pellegrini faces anything but certainty. Dumped out of the Champions League, with recent defeats against Crystal Palace and Burnley effectively ending the Blues’ title defence, City’s campaign has imploded during February and March. Another European failure compounding domestic complacency it would appear.
On the pitch Pellegrini may be without captain Vincent Kompany, who suffered a hamstring injury against Palace on Monday. The Belgian will face a late fitness test before a final selection is decision is made on the out-of-form defender. Pellegrini may also drop Eden Dzeko, with the Bosnian having scored just four goals this season – two coming in his past 22 games for the club.
Still, Kompany has talked a good game this week, despite City’s poor form. The defender claims that the derby has come at the right time for the struggling Blues to correct a run of poor results.
“It’s a good moment to go into a derby,” said the 29-year-old. “It’s the perfect place for us to go and try to rectify what we’ve had. A derby is a derby. It doesn’t matter what place you are in the league, it’s a derby. My only concern is we get back to our best form. I think it’s our general form that we have to improve. I’ve learnt from the past seasons as well that finishing a season strongly can have an impact on your next season as well.”
The same can be said for United – victory will solidify third-place, with second very much on the agenda at Old Trafford. And while second may be “nowhere” it will prove to be a vast improvement on seventh under David Moyes. Perhaps even momentum for a title challenge next season.
First, however, the derby. Talk of the title can wait, but supporters certainly demand better than a fifth defeat to City in a row. Much better.
United (4-1-4-1): De Gea; Valencia, Smalling, Rojo, Blind; Carrick; Herrera, Mata, Fellaini, Young; Rooney
City (4-4-2): Hart; Zabaletta, Demichelis, Kompany, Clichy; Milner, Touré, Fernandinho, Silva, Navas; Agüero
United: Valdes, Rafael, McNair, Jones, Shaw, Blackett, Di Maria, Januzaj, Wilson, Falcao
City (4-5-1): Caballero, Sagna, Mangala, Kolarov, Lampard, Nasri, Fernando, Dzeko
United 69 – Draw 50 – City 49
Referee: Mark Clattenburg
Assistants: S Beck, J Collin
Fourth Official: J Moss
United 1-1 City
£1 bet club
1-1 at HT @ 13/2
Running total: £11.50 up!
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