Talking Tactics: Premier League, Manchester United v Manchester City
There may have been some method to Sir Alex Ferguson’s madness in starting without Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez and Nani at Liverpool last weekend.
But it would be foolish, not just folly, if he were to do the same against Manchester City today. Without them, Manchester United are simply laboured rather than lethal in attack. Their strength becomes a weakness.
With Ashley Young on the left wing, it is a fearsome foursome; as good as any in world club football and providing the ultimate test for a City defence that has conceded just six league goals, but still looks vulnerable.
The versatility of Phil Jones is an asset for Ferguson, but where using him in a midfield man-marking role against Liverpool’s Charlie Adam was a surprise, it may not be to counter the more obvious threat of David Silva.
There is no doubt that when the Spaniard is on song, so are City. He was closely monitored against Villarreal in midweek and struggled. So did his side.
When he was at Blackburn Rovers, Sam Allardyce described Jones as the “new Michael Essien” because he could play anywhere and be a success.
“You watch Essien play right back for Chelsea and he is brilliant. You watch him play centre half and he’s brilliant and you watch him play centre midfield and he is brilliant. I think Phil Jones will be like that eventually. Playing in other positions can enhance your knowledge. Only the best players do that and he is one of the best.”
With Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Chris Smalling also vying for starting spots, Ferguson has a defensive dilemma and whether to go for experience or youthful exuberance. I’m expecting the former.
And that could play right into City’s hands if they decide to be daring and play Sergio Aguero and Mario Balotelli up front. Pace, power and unpredictability could be an effective combination to providing a winner in this eagerly-awaited encounter.
Both these frontmen have that and will be backed up by the silky Silva and muscular midfielder Yaya Toure.
With a two-point cushion over United at the top of the table, Roberto Mancini may prefer conservative to cavalier. That would mean a sole striker in Aguero, with a five-man midfield supplemented by Gareth Barry, Nigel de Jong and the more workmanlike James Milner rather than Samir Nasri.
The latter option could be deemed a touch controversial, but not when it provides City balance in such an important area.
There were always concerns about whether Silva and Nasri could play together and they still remain, especially against teams that counter quickly as United will do.
Gael Clichy and Micah Richards should be restored to the backline and offer an attacking outlet on the wings to push Young and Nani back.
With both sides seemingly cancelling out the other, it points to the need for a moment of brilliance – and there will be no shortage of players who can do that.