Manchester United and Manchester City will meet at Old Trafford this Sunday, and although they are separated by just three points at the top of the league, there’s little similarity between the two clubs. City are clear favourites, but the season so far hints that any result is possible. This is now the third consecutive season that City are expected to out-perform Manchester United in both the league and in Europe, and that comes down to City’s superior planning in the last few years.
United were dreadfully unprepared for Alex Ferguson’s exit, from which they have yet to recover. Of course, it might be almost impossible to sufficiently plan for the loss of a manager who served for the best part of three decades, but appointing David Moyes was oddly unquestioned despite being a palpably flawed choice. Coupled with an ageing and often mediocre squad, United collapsed under the weight of expectation and dissent, brought down even further by a manager out of his depth and a clown above him, Edward Woodward. Moyes was alarmed at the lack of formal scouting structure, and began a necessary overhaul.
When Louis van Gaal arrived at United, he presented the club an unusually shallow list of targets. He wanted Arjen Robben, Thomas Vermaelen and a couple of others. Woodward agreed but utterly failed to deliver them, which sparked a pair of rushed buys in Radamel Falcao and Angel Di Maria—both reasonable punts at the time, but in retrospect, actually planning properly would have been better.
This season was a great improvement in the recruitment department. Shortlists were drawn up, and there was little dithering over the first few signings. Morgan Schneiderlin, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Matteo Darmian and Memphis Depay arrived in good time. Then, there was a failure to add properly to the attack, and only Anthony Martial came. There were rumours about failure for Marco Reus and Antoine Griezmann which appear to be correct, highlighting that Woodward appears to aim for lofty targets, but is unable to deliver them due to not paying the going rate.
This has left United in a peculiar situation, for them at least. On the one hand, they have enough players of superior quality to expect to beat almost anyone in the league. As demonstrated against Everton, Sunderland, Southampton and Wolfsburg, United have successfully settled their new signings, who have enough understanding and morale to do what’s necessary. Yet against Arsenal, they demonstrated the problem with having failed to also secure a central defender and new senior forward. Essentially, Wayne Rooney should not be in the first team squad as he is, and neither Daley Blind nor Phil Jones will ever become a defender able to keep the best at bay. These things were obvious in the summer and yet were not addressed.
The Manchester derby could therefore pose a real test for United’s system. Van Gaal is a coach who got the most out of his squad against Liverpool, City and Spurs towards the tail-end of last season, only to find that whenever he played a counter-attacking side he would get soundly beaten. Chelsea picked him off and laughed to themselves as they did it. Against Arsenal this season, the same thing happened. United were left exposed by daft tactics and dafter mistakes.
At Everton it seems that Van Gaal alighted on his best formation through a mixture of luck and good judgement, but in his biggest test of the season against Arsenal he appeared clueless, an appearance exacerbated by introducing Marouane Fellaini to turn the game around. Similarly, his willingness to dismiss Ander Herrera, clearly deserving of a regular spot, means there’s no guarantee he won’t try to sabotage everything from the start against City.
That, ironically, is the same criticism that was aimed at Manuel Pellegrini last season. Playing Jesus Navas on the right—clearly to the detriment of the side—seemed to be something of a peccadillo for Pellegrini. Now, although Navas features, he clearly does so in order to change things up in the second half of a game or to give other key players a rest. Fernando, too, is no longer such a regular depressant for City supporters. He is significantly better than he appeared last season, and might still become an important member of the side, but he doesn’t merit being indulged any longer. With the arrival of Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Fabian Delph and others, he’s no longer needed.
Similarly, Eliaquim Mangala has started to show why he came at so hefty a price for City, but not often enough that it didn’t look justified for the team to take Nicolas Otamendi from Valencia, particularly as Vincent Kompany is 90% muscle strain by volume.
The difference in City’s organisation is that they buy for a system, and that system includes a manager. The 4-3-3, or variants on it, are largely what the club is aiming for. Their plan is to build a squad attractive enough for Pep Guardiola, so that once he arrives he can add his own players to allow City to finally do something in Europe. After all, nothing launders the reputation of a country that represses human rights like holding a Champions League trophy aloft and showing it on repeat on BeIN Sport. (Of course, Western society is very often similarly atrocious and cynical, but that doesn’t mean City’s owners need to be excused for their obvious faults).
In the summer, City gave Pellegrini a new contract to quell possible insurrection in the ranks, and gave him the players that would allow them to challenge for the Premier League title. Whether Pellegrini also helped give his players confidence or if it came from simply realizing they were a better squad doesn’t matter. City had a strong spine, extremely talented youngsters, and kept Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero. They have some of the very best players in the world, and took care of Chelsea 3-0 early in the season.
However, they reacted to their European games by losing embarrassingly twice, to West Ham and then to Spurs. It’s not quite a mirror image, but while their are hints that City are finally growing into their biggest games (see their Champions League matches last year), they are capable of hubris and complacency against the mediocre.
Which makes the match against United difficult to predict. United are perhaps the very best mediocre side in the league. The best that can beat the best of the rest. But against those who they would like to consider peers, they seem fragile and at the mercy of their manager and captain’s worst qualities, and without the depth of quality to overcome that in the way that United would often succeed in spite of Ferguson’s tinkering.
City, like United, improved significantly in the transfer window, perhaps having the best of all Premier League squads. They have shown that they are charged up and refreshed, but they have also lost to Juventus, out of form, West Ham and Spurs. They have shown complacency after an impressive start. In a poor league, there are two ways to win the league on offer. One, you can beat everyone outside the top four and win through consistency without ever really being something special. Or, you can take on your rivals and make sure you take advantage of head-to-head games. The two teams seem to be taking a strategy each, with neither quite ready to step up and achieving something special—beating just about everyone.