Can United draw hope from their January win?
United’s victory in the last derby turned out to be nowhere near as pivotal as it felt at the time. It was a ninth win in a row for Erik ten Hag’s side and took them to within a point of City; approaching the halfway point of the season, they seemed very much part of the title race. A draw at Crystal Palace and defeat at Arsenal in the two games that followed exposed that as fallacy. But that does not mean the game was not meaningful – even if that significance was probably felt more by City than United.
United’s equaliser was the product of the silly modern interpretation of the offside law, Marcus Rashford deemed not to be interfering despite escorting the ball for several yards before Bruno Fernandes scored. But that goal and Rashford’s subsequent winner, which stemmed from an Alejandro Garnacho dart down the left, exposed flaws in City’s midfield as opponents were able to make runs behind the City line.
Erling Haaland had only 19 touches of the ball; the previous season in the derby at Old Trafford, Ilkay Gündogan had the fewest touches of any City player with 74. This seemed the key City conundrum: how to accommodate Haaland, who not merely wanted the ball played to him direct but also didn’t make a huge contribution to the maintenance of possession, which had always been the hallmark of Guardiola sides.
Within three weeks the issue was resolved, thanks to the shift to using four central defenders with John Stones pushing into midfield; Haaland perhaps drops a little deeper than he did, but he still rarely has more than 30 touches in a game. After losing at Tottenham on 5 February, City have been behind for only 15 minutes. But the fundamental point remains; no matter how improved City have been of late, if Guardiola teams have a flaw, it is always that ball played to runners behind the defensive line. There’s a reason Brentford, one of the Premier League’s more direct teams, have beaten City twice this season.
The sight of a trophy engraver adding the winning team's name to the trophy is all part of the fanfare of victory in a final, along with the ticker-tape, player selfies and managers getting soaked. Things will be slightly different at Wembley on Saturday – the trophy will arrive with the word MANCHESTER already on it.
The competition’s official trophy and silverware provider, Thomas Lyte, are responsible for etching the winning club’s name into history each season. To mark the unique occasion of a Manchester derby final, the city's named has already been etched into place – either City or United will be added following the final whistle. Guardian sport
Stones: central or right?
City’s real golden spell of form coincided with the beginning of Guardiola’s ploy of using Stones as an auxiliary midfielder, creating the 3-2 trapezoid defensive shape out of possession that now seems accepted as the best way of defending against the counter. It began with Stones at right-back stepping into midfield, but that risks a rapid break that could release a player in behind him – an issue that, for instance, Southampton exploited on the final day of the season when Trent Alexander-Arnold played in that hybrid full-back/central midfield role.
That is a particular danger against a quick player and, while Rashford’s purple patch has seemingly come to an end – just three goals in his last 12 appearances – he could exploit a gap like that. It seems more likely Stones will be used as a centre-back stepping up, where he has played since the 7-0 home win over RB Leipzig in the Champions League. That then means that Kyle Walker’s pace can be deployed on the right against Rashford – if, that is, Rashford plays on the United left.
Who plays up front for United?
If Martial were fit, it’s almost certain he would start at centre‑forward for United. Although it’s likely he will be replaced in the summer, he is quick, adept on the break and capable enough at dropping deep to create space for Rashford and Antony as they cut infield from the flanks. Martial played the full 90 minutes in United’s win over City in January; when he has played under Ten Hag, United win 76% of games as opposed to 64% when he does not. But the French striker is out with a hamstring injury, in effect leaving Ten Hag with a choice between Rashford through the centre and Wout Weghorst.
Weghorst has scored only twice for United and frankly, for all his enthusiasm, has rarely looked close to the requisite quality, but Rashford never appears quite as effective through the middle as he does cutting in from the left. If Rashford is used centrally by Ten Hag, it would presumably mean Garnacho on the left. Given the Argentinian’s questionable defensive discipline, that could represent an opportunity for Walker to get forward.
One of the areas in which Manchester City have improved this season – a function in part of Haaland’s power – is from crossed set plays. In the league they scored six times directly from crossed set plays but the impact is greater than that: four of Haaland’s five goals against Leipzig, for instance, were the result of uncleared corners, but none actually register as a goal directly from a crossed set play.
At the same time, United have conceded six times in the league from crossed set plays, a situation not helped by injuries at the heart of their defence. Raphaël Varane, at least, is back after a foot injury. With Lisandro Martínez out, he is likely to be partnered by Victor Lindelöf, whose ability to hit long passes could help United to break quickly and exploit that space behind City’s defensive line. That he wins 63% of his aerial duels could also be of benefit in trying somehow to keep Haaland quiet.