The Manchester Derby looms large over this weekend's Premier League action.
Manchester City v. Manchester United (Sunday, November 2 - 8:30 AM ET, NBCSN)
It has to be refreshing for Manchester United to arrive to a big game and not be the team in crisis. Somehow that's the case this week, as their hosts and neighbors for the Manchester Derby are firmly under the spotlight after three straight underwhelming performances within the past ten days.
City's troubles have come in three different competitions: the disappointing 2-2 draw to CSKA Moscow was in the Champions League, last Saturday's 1-2 loss away at West Ham was in the Premier League and not two days ago City found a way to be dumped from the League Cup at home by, drumroll please, a weakened Newcastle lineup.
What has to be even more depressing for City is that they actually took that fairly innocent League Cup match pretty seriously: if you look at their starting lineup, you could say that no more than four regular starters (Vincent Kompany, Fernando, Joe Hart and Pablo Zabaleta) were left out of it entirely. Adding salt to the wound is the small matter of David Silva having to be substituted out after only 9 minutes after a tackle left him hobbled. As a result of that unfortunate incident, the Spanish playmaker will be on the sidelines for 3-4 weeks. Yaya Touré also suffered a slight knock in that match, but he's quite likely to start on Sunday.
And here United thought they had the monopoly on damaging injuries.
It's a testament to the quick twists and turns that abound in the long Premier League season that just a week ago this fixture seemed like Manchester United's second straight trip to the gallows, given their recent duel with league-leading Chelsea last Sunday. Instead, we now have a situation where United not only avoided what seemed like certain defeat to Mourinho's men, but recovered some of their trademark late-game mystique.
In stark contrast, City's manager, Manuel Pellegrini, talks openly about a lack of confidence within his ranks. Things indeed change quickly in the Premier League.
Adding to Pellegrini's worries is that United captain Wayne Rooney, someone who holds the Manchester Derby scoring record, is once again available after serving his three-match ban. This is handy for United, since their current tactical shape seems to be designed with their captain in mind instead of Juan Mata. In the last two games, Louis van Gaal's men have lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation that employs two traditional wingers (Ángel Di María and Adnan Januzaj) much closer to the sidelines than to the lone advance midfielder up the middle (Juan Mata). Both against West Brom and Chelsea, Mata has been largely ineffective deployed in that role, given that the ex-Chelsea man thrives when there are other skilled players closer to him. United now drive their attacking flow through the wings instead of the middle, and that does not suit the very expensive Spaniard's game all that well. Slotting Rooney in Mata's place changes things significantly. The England captain's tendency to roam across a large area of the field represents more of a challenge for Fernando and Yaya Touré, as well as for Premier League rookie Eliaquim Mangala. City's very expensive central defender had a promising debut against Chelsea, but his performances since then have been rather uneven.
Thus, Louis van Gaal doesn't have much to ponder ahead of Sunday's match: he will most likely employ the same shape and lineup that rescued a point against Chelsea, with captain Rooney's reappearance as the only bit of news. His counterpart Manuel Pellegrini's situation, however, is vastly different.
In all likelihood, the Chilean hasn't slept a wink since Wednesday's loss to Newcastle. The nightmarish scenario of not being able to rely on his main offensive conductor, David Silva would keep anyone up all night. Yes, Samir Nasri is healthy once again, and the Frenchman seems like the natural choice to replace Silva. However, Nasri could be making his first appearance of the season on Sunday, after suffering a groin injury that required surgery. It's difficult to envision the Frenchman replicating Silva's delightful recent form.
The larger question revolves around what shape City's boss will employ. Against Spurs, their last win of any kind over the past four matches, he went with a 4-2-3-1 formation. Pellegrini let Silva roam free behind lone striker Sergio Agüero, and deployed Jesús Navas and James Milner on the wings. Later in the game, striker Stevan Jovetic was brought on for David Silva with the game more or less decided, and the Blues switched to a more traditional 4-4-2.
That tactical shape remained for the trips to Moscow and Upton Park, and was seen again against Newcastle. As you can gather, it hasn't worked all that well.
Pellegrini might be tempted to return to his 4-2-3-1, particularly because employing some width of his own will help counteract the Di María and Januzaj effect on the wings. Pellegrini can then turn the tables on United and deploy Nasri behind Agüero, flanking him with Milner and Navas. Throwing speed at United's frail back four is never a bad idea, even though the Red Devils fared reasonably well against an imposing trio of Oscar, Eden Hazard and Willian last week. Still, United were lucky to be afforded the luxury of not facing Diego Costa. No such boon is available this week, as Sergio Agüero is both healthy and in great scoring form.
With all that being said, Pellegrini might well decide that United's defensive unit will be put under more pressure by his beloved 4-4-2 and play either Dzeko or Jovetic alongside Agüero up front, with Milner and Nasri closer to the middle behind them. That would help City create favorable match-ups against United's shaky central defenders, as well as put additional pressure on Daley Blind and Fellaini, cutting off United's engine room from its danger men on the wings. There is really no obvious answer for the Chilean, and the answers to all these questions will only come when we see his starting lineup on Sunday.
Derbies like this one traditionally carry a whole lot of drama, uncertainty and speculation. In the past year, it's been United who have provided most of the intrigue, with the world intent on examining their every move post-Sir Alex. Much to City's chagrin, their recent struggles have managed to shift a sizeable chunk of that attention onto themselves.