For all their goals and attacking flair, the big doubt about Manchester City this season has been how they cope without key members of their spine. Sergio Aguero is probably out for another month, but without him on Saturday, City hammered Bournemouth 5-1, and Raheem Sterling scored a hat-trick.
David Silva is a major doubt for Sunday, but Vincent Kompany should return after being dropped for having defied his manager’s instructions not to play for Belgium last week soon after returning from a calf problem. His presence is significant: in five league games with him, City didn’t concede. In the four since his calf injury, they’ve leaked eight. Aleksandr Kolarov is expected to miss out, which with Gael Clichy still struggling with his foot injury, probably means Bacary Sagna continuing at left-back.
United’s only significant absentee is Luke Shaw. Ashley Young is a doubt but that is less of an issue with Marcos Rojo returned to fitness to operate at left-back.
Two thumping wins in a row have steadied the City ship after the wobble that saw them lose three out of four in all competitions, but the fact they were home fixtures against Newcastle and Bournemouth, two sides in the bottom four, means those wins perhaps aren’t as telling as they might otherwise have been.
United, meanwhile, continue to bewilder with their lurches of form: three wins in a row followed by a crushing defeat at Arsenal, followed by an extremely impressive win at Everton. Last season, United were comfortable victors in the derby at Old Trafford, and were probably on top in the game at the Etihad when Chris Smalling was sent off, tipping the game City’s way.
United have averaged 57% possession this season, City 56.7%, the second and third highest percentages in the Premier League. One of them, clearly, is going to be more on the back foot than they’d like on Sunday. The suspicion is that City will take note of how Arsenal played against United, when they won with just 40% possession, and allow United the ball, looking to use the pace of Raheem Sterling, Kevin De Bruyne and Jesus Navas on the break.
That could be particularly dangerous on the right, against Rojo, who can seem a little slow on the turn. The difference here is that Morgan Schneiderlin will surely play and that should give United greater protection at the back of midfield than they had at the Emirates.
IMPORTANCE OF MARTIAL
When Anthony Martial has been on the pitch this season, United have scored a goal every 35 minutes. Without him they’ve scored every 106 minutes,
Saturday’s win at Everton was intriguing because of his deployment on the left, leaving Wayne Rooney to play through the middle with Ander Herrera tucked behind him. Herrera’s performance was good enough to all but ensure he will retain his place, which means an intriguing battle on the flank between Martial and Pablo Zabaleta, whose forward forays are a key part of City’s attacking plan.
Rooney’s form remains enigmatic, although the basic theory still seems to hold that he takes a long time to recover from lay-offs. His performance at Everton on Saturday perhaps hinted at a return to form and, if that is the case, then United may begin to improve their statistic of just 11 shots per game, the sixth worst in the Premier League.
There were times against Bournemouth when Wilfried Bony, rather than being used as the out-and-out front man, dropped deep behind Sterling. It’s a tactic Manuel Pellegrini used with Edin Dzeko and Alvaro Negredo as well – and perhaps isn’t dissimilar to United’s use of Marouane Fellaini last season – keeping the main heading threat deep. That depth may allow him better to isolate Daley Blind, whose lack of aerial ability is something teams have been trying and largely failing to exploit all season.
United’s performances against City last season, the way they played at Everton and the injuries to Aguero and Silva – and possibly Kompany – all seem to favour United so it’s slightly surprising to find them as long as 2.55 to win. Big victories against vulnerable opponents may have covered over City’s own flaws – even if it’s reasonable to think they’ll look defensively more convincing if Kompany returns. There is an inconsistency about United under Van Gaal that means it’s impossible to be entirely confident about them, but their home form has been excellent this season and if Rooney has started scoring again, that 2.55 looks good value.