Timing is everything, particularly in football. Realistically, Manchester United’s mammoth task against Manchester City could not have come at a worse time. Less than two weeks removed from that chastening 5-0 to Liverpool, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side must find a way past the English champions in a derby game. Unfortunately for them, another shellacking seems more likely.
Solskjaer survived the maelstrom of speculation about his employment after his team were thumped by Jurgen Klopp’s men. The Norwegian remained in the dugout for last weekend’s trip to Tottenham Hotspur, and that 3-0 looked regenerative. A change in system to a back three paid dividends, and United were comfortable. The positives were plentiful. The oft-criticised ‘McFred’ pivot of Fred and Scott McTominay looked more stable with increased defensive protection. Solskjaer fielded a veteran frontline of Cristiano Ronaldo and Edinson Cavani, with both forwards getting on the scoresheet. United looked defiant after being hopelessly dysfunctional just six days before.
The caveat to this of course is Spurs’ own abject dysfunction. Nuno Espirito Santo was overseeing his tenth and final Premier League game in charge of the North London club, and would register his fifth loss. Tottenham won the other five league games during his tenure, conceding sixteen goals and scoring just nine. The ignominy of losing to United is what finally cost the former Wolverhampton Wanderers boss his job, and he has now been replaced by Antonio Conte.
The fact the Spurs win was not one you could glean too much from was reinforced on Tuesday night. United once again had to rely on a late show from Ronaldo, who sealed an arguably-undeserved 2-2 draw with an injury time equaliser. The idea United had flattered to deceive at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium was underlined by Solskjaer’s choice to go with the back three once again, in a fixture where it made a lot less sense. Atalanta were looking to hit United on the counter themselves, and thus a defensive-minded formation was not going to do an effective job of unlocking the Serie A side. A first-half injury to Raphael Varane led to a reshuffle, but the Red Devils were still second-best for most of the game. Against a team more organised and committed than Nuno’s Spurs, United struggled.
Which brings us to this weekend’s game. United can take solace in the fact City were beaten by Crystal Palace last weekend, but Solskjaer’s team aren’t Palace. This is not to facetiously claim Patrick Vieira’s side are better than United, broadly speaking they are not. But the Eagles have not lost a game of football since their September defeat to Liverpool. The City win is their only victory since, having drawn the rest. But they have at least shown a durability this current United vintage seems to lack.
With City coming off the back of a 4-1 win in Europe, confidence will be high as they meet a United team that has rarely performed well this season. The problems are manifold, and well-reported. The squad is defensively poor, having conceded nine more league goals than City this campaign. The midfield lacks balance, to the point where the suspension of Paul Pogba actually serves to simplify a complicated selection headache rather than rob United of an option. The Frenchman’s poor recent performances, including a particularly galling display against Atalanta, mean the Reds will not be missing Pogba as much as one might expect. The attack has also been disrupted by the addition of Ronaldo, despite his vital contributions.
At one point, Solskjaer made an art-form out of setting his team up to face his top-six rivals. While the games were often cagey, this defensive approach usually yielded results. Against City, the numbers make for encouraging reading. Solskjaer has the best record of any manager who has faced Guardiola in at least five games, having won four, drawn one and lost three. But United have lost the durability and organisation that saw them through many of those games.
There is every chance United could receive a Liverpool-level hammering on Saturday. The defence, the reliance on moments of individual brilliance, the lack of a functional midfield, and the lack of confidence are all at play. This game could be a reprise of the 6-1 drubbing that Sir Alex Ferguson’s team suffered against the Cityzens in 2011. Despite the fact a United win would actually put them above City in the table, the performances of these teams are worlds apart.
On the flipside, Palace did demonstrate that Guardiola’s side can be got-at. There is also an element that statistical breakdowns and form guides can’t communicate. That being Solskjaer’s uncanny ability to pull out a result when his job appears under threat. A heavy defeat here would see a return to the post-Liverpool narrative, with the Conte links swapped out for Erik Ten Hag, Mauricio Pochettino or any other available manager you care to mention. But a victory would solidify the manager’s position, and possibly sustain him through even a few more poor results afterwards.
Never underestimate the power of a Manchester derby win.
The latter scenario feels unlikely though. The Spurs win was a cathartic release, but ultimately nothing more. The game before Liverpool was a 4-2 defeat to Leicester City, before that there was a ropey draw with Everton, and another late bail-out from Ronaldo against Villarreal. September’s 2-1 win at West Ham United is arguably the Red Devils’ last passable performance against a solid side. Even then, a late penalty save from David De Gea and an 89th minute goal from Jesse Lingard spared their blushes. There is very little to suggest United can arrest the slide against Manchester City.