Londoners may think otherwise but for most of the world, the Manchester derby is the centre of the Premier League universe now.
Defending champions Manchester City have been one of the competition’s most successful teams in recent times and they will be up against a side which, its legion of supporters hope, has finally turned the corner.
On Sunday, Manchester United go to the Etihad Stadium after four straight wins, two of them coming against Liverpool and Arsenal who finished above them in 2021-22. Four games are a small sample size but Manchester United have looked like a team where new manager Eric ten Hag has been able to impose himself, where his signings have made significant impact and that it could thrive without Cristiano Ronaldo, who was their highest scorer in 2021-22.
“We have to play a perfect game. They have the qualities up front, physicality and quality in the middle with (Christian) Eriksen, (Bruno) Fernandes, physicality with Casemiro and (Scott) McTominay,” said Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola.
If United have won four league games in a row, that number is seven for City. Guardiola’s team has scored three goals or more in six of their eight games this season. City have scored more goals in the first half (10) and in the second (13) than United have in their Premier League campaign (8) that is now six games old (one less than City).
To a settled squad that has Jack Grealish and Kevin de Bruyne, who has been ageing like fine wine, they have added Erling Braut Haaland who is such a phenomenon that he could be the first in Premier League history to score a hattrick in three consecutive games. Haaland goes into Sunday’s home game with 11 league goals. And by his admission, he is a work in progress. “Maybe I can get my full potential out in 10 years,” he told The Athletic.
How United contain Haaland will be key and it won’t be just down to the possible central defensive pairing of Raphael Varane and Lisandro Martinez. At 177cm, Martinez is 17 centimetres shorter than Haaland but he does have memories of keeping the striker quiet when Ajax played Borussia Dortmund in the 2021-22 Champions League. Ten Hag has spoken about it but also pointed out that City’s style will be different from Dortmund’s.
How United’s full backs, possibly Diogo Dalot and Tyrel Malacia, deal with crosses into the box will be just as crucial.
And it still won’t be enough if they ace both because for all of Haaland’s jaw-dropping prowess, De Bruyne has 30 goal contributions, including 16 goals, in his last 30 league games. The Belgian also leads the assists charts in the competition (6) this term. Exactly how good is City can be gauged by the fact that goalkeeper Ederson is capable of passes that sometimes end up as assists.
All of that is why City have dominated the last five encounters between the teams, United having won only once in that time. But since Martinez softened up Mohamed Salah early in the home game against Liverpool, things have looked up for United. Ten Hag’s signings have increased the technical ability of the team, Antony scored on his league debut and in Malacia they have a player Netherlands manager Louis van Gaal calls a “pitbull.”
Eriksen and Fernandes have shown they can be slotted into the same 11 and Marcus Rashford shades of what he was capable of before the Euro 2022 final. Rashford was Premier League’s player of month; the award for the manager going to Ten Hag. “It is for what we achieved as a group. We are going in the right direction. But there is a lot of space to improve,” said Ten Hag.
Rashford may not be fit enough to start, if reports out of England are to be believed, and since Anthony Martial too may not pass the fitness test, it could mean Ronaldo being in the first 11 for the first time in the league this season. Not an unhappy problem for any manager to have.
From getting the team to run over 13km–and running with them−Ten Hag has shown who is boss. He hasn’t shirked from keeping Ronaldo and Casemiro out because neither did pre-season. Realising that it would take time for United to adapt to his playing-out-from-the-back style, Ten Hag changed after the first two games. Though they may have surprised Liverpool by starting on the front foot, United are likely to sit back and look to hit on the break against a team which keeps the ball better than any team in the world.
City too have changed to accommodate Haaland. The False Nine has been binned and they put more deliveries into the box than they would earlier. Defensively too City are solid, having leaked the least goals (7) among teams that have played seven games.
In an interview to Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Ten Hag has spoken of trying to implement Guardiola’s structure at Ajax. It will take long to do that at a team in transition, but in the lead-up to Sunday, he has said: “If we act as a team then we can beat our opponents. That is the belief we need, and we need it even more on Sunday.”