United writers' views on Manchester derby

Thursday 04 November 2021 15:00

After Tuesday night was filled by drama and stunning goals in northern Italy, Manchester United now face one of the biggest games of the season.

No run of results or form could ever lessen the intensity of the Manchester derby and its importance to supporters, but when a win for United could draw the Reds level on points with City in the Premier League, the match takes on an even greater significance.

Here, several club writers explain their thoughts on Saturday’s clash with City and what they’re expecting to see this weekend at Old Trafford…

Ole's impressive record against Pep


Stats show that Solskjaer is arguably the most effective opponent the Catalan manager has faced.

These are the days

For me, the debates about systems, "patterns of play" and how we'll deal with Pep Guardiola's false nine can wait. The only thing I'll be thinking about come 12:30pm on Saturday is that Old Trafford is full and ready to roar the Reds on in a Manchester derby. It's only 20 months since we last had fans at a derby, but Scott McTominay's memorable last-gasp clincher in March 2020 feels so, so long ago. That was one of the great days under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and one of the great days for United in this fixture's recent history. It was also a great example of how the crowd can influence and help in the big moments.

The euphoric McTominay goal dominates our memories of that match, but Old Trafford really helped the Reds through the majority of the second half that day. City were on top for long periods, but we dug in, and the Red Army's energy pulled the team through. There's nothing like our home crowd when United are on the front foot in one of these big, nerve-wracking contests. And, after the lengthy absence of fans in this fixture, days like Saturday are something I'm never going to take for granted ever again.

Take a chance

As Joe reminds us, that day in March 2020 was special. Derbies so often are. Even without the context of what then happened, there was something in the air in that moment as we danced in a dark evening’s rain at the Theatre of Dreams after McTominay’s goal. That it proved the last game before behind-closed-doors fixtures took over means it holds a special place in many people’s hearts, for all kinds of reasons. I think most of us have quickly got used to football’s return to normality. It didn’t take long, and I’ll never pass up on an opportunity to remember just how good it is to be back going to games once again. We shouldn’t forget how far off that seemed at points over the last 18 months.

So, Saturday should be brilliant, whether the sun’s shining or grey clouds shed their weight as they did when McTominay slid in front of the Stretford End. I find these games difficult to watch. I’m always excited to play against Liverpool, and nervous to play City. Why, I don’t know. So the nerves will steadily build between now and Saturday lunchtime. The key for United is being proactive in defence, tracking those many buzzing runners City have coming from midfield, not being scared to keep the ball and calm the game down, and, most importantly, taking our chances when we do manage to carve City’s impressive defence open. We know we're not in our best form, but here's the chance to make lifelong memories. Take it.

United fans celebrating in March 2020: "All the lads and lasses, with smiles upon their faces"

Bring it on

Not being a Mancunian, I never approach the derby with the same sense of trepidation as I do United v Liverpool or, back in the day, those titanic tussles with Arsenal. Perhaps that’s reflective of our good recent record in the fixture: the Reds haven’t lost to City in the league in four meetings. Or maybe I just don’t know as many Manchester City fans…

City will probably go into the games as favourites, but some of our best performances under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer have come against the Blues. Because of this, I’m quietly confident that we can get a result but the first 30 minutes are key: Guardiola’s side have a habit of flying out of the blocks but if you can keep them quiet, they can get frustrated. West Ham and Crystal Palace have both kept clean sheets against them in the past fortnight, for example.

Ronaldo to shine in the derby

From Michael Owen’s 96th minute winner via Wayne Rooney’s bicycle kick to Scott McTominay’s 40-yard wondergoal, the Manchester derbies at Old Trafford have produced some truly memorable moments. Whenever United play City, it’s a special day in Manchester and, having lived here since 2017, I’ve been lucky enough to experience it first-hand.

With the rumours of Cristiano Ronaldo snubbing City to join United in the summer, this derby has an extra spice to it, and one would be a fool to bet against our no.7 doing something special on Saturday. The 36-year-old has already produced some magical moments since his return to the club and I think he will produce another to put his name on the aforementioned list of iconic derby goals.

Order your derby issue of United Review


Get hold of the match programme for Saturday's huge Manchester derby between United and City.

Let’s see what happens but after two strong away results, against Tottenham and Atalanta, and with a packed Old Trafford behind them, the Reds should go into the Manchester derby full of belief and confidence. I’ll be at the Theatre of Dreams, and I cannot wait!

Disrupt their rhythm

After our last home outing, there is an understandable amount of trepidation when welcoming City to Old Trafford. However, they too have had an up-and-down season to date, with huge wins offset by unexpected blanks. The key lies in disrupting City's rhythm, a tactic employed successfully already this season by Leicester, Spurs, Southampton, West Ham and Crystal Palace domestically. If City's nominated false nine is allowed to wreak havoc between the defensive and midfield lines in the same manner that Roberto Firmino did for Liverpool, it will spell trouble because once City hit their stride, they can pass their way through any team. But, with proper communication and organisation, they can be stifled, frustrated and left ripe for counter-attacking, something at which we remain particularly dangerous.

Finding the skeleton keys

I’ve been thinking about this derby since the final whistle against Atalanta on Tuesday night. I watched the City game against Bruges the following evening, keen to see who Pep Guardiola would field and how his team would set up. Given the short turnaround for them – Wednesday night 8pm kick-off to Saturday 12.30pm kick-off, about as short as it gets outside of the festive schedule – I wondered whether he’d show much sign of saving players for the derby. Nope, didn’t seem to.

Form man Phil Foden was in from the start, as was Jack Grealish, favoured midfield anchor Rodri, Joao Cancelo. OK, that still meant Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Ruben Dias and Gabriel Jesus got full or partial rests, but I do think that the extra day’s grace that United have is a factor – and Bruges did give them a decent game, at least until later on in proceedings when City ran away with it.

As to any learnings I took from my sofa scouting missing, nothing new. City lined up in the notional 4-3-3, and when I say notional I really mean it. They may form up like that on the TV graphics and on the pitch before kick-off, but once the whistle sounds any lines or boundaries disappear. Cancelo, for one, was typically roaming all over the place, far from the traditional left-back patch. In attack (which tends to be a lot of the time), everyone’s invited, by no means just the three ‘forwards’.

It’s hard not to be impressed. Or to see how some opposition might feel overawed. However much I furrow my brow, I struggle to think of a specific way to play against them.

Which is why I have maximum respect for Ole. He often works out in this fixture some smart strategy for approaching the game. For all that City’s style looks to lock up possession and imprison opponents in their own half, Ole seems to find skeleton keys, blind sides, hidden doors. No doubt he’ll have something up his sleeve for this. And if his players can carry it off, I think we’ve got every chance of adding to Solskjaer’s four derby wins so far.

Ole and Bruno embrace after last year's 2-0 away win at City.

Reds up for it

I’m buzzing at the thought of a first Manchester derby in the flesh since the glorious win back in March 2020, and thinking back to that match can’t help but remind you that there are so many players in the Red ranks who will be equally up for it, having experienced the thrill of victory and the joy of scoring against our closest rivals. There’s McTominay and Martial from that afternoon at Old Trafford, not to mention Bruno and Luke Shaw from our last meeting at the Etihad. Local lad Marcus is always up for it and will be looking to add to his collection of goals against the Blues and while Edinson Cavani has yet to sample the Manchester derby, he’ll be desperate to show what he can do in front of a packed Stretford End again. And that’s before we mention Mr Ronaldo… enough said.

As a footnote, I’ll be hot-footing it from Old Trafford to London after the game to see the legendary New Order in concert – the last time I combined United and New Order on a Saturday was in April 2016, watching the breathless FA Cup semi-final win over Everton and then going straight from Wembley to the Royal Albert Hall to complete a magical double-header. If this Saturday serves up similar entertainment, we’re in for a belter.