Louis Van Gaal banking on United’s attacking brio in derby

Noisy neighbours now wearing red as City look to end run of poor form

The signing of Ángel Di María, along with Radamel Falcao, illustrates the power United still wield in the transfer market, despite their absence from Europe. Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA Wire.

The signing of Ángel Di María, along with Radamel Falcao, illustrates the power United still wield in the transfer market, despite their absence from Europe. Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA Wire.

 

Here we go then, same old Manchester derby. Settled champion team against big-spending upstarts. Well-grooved star names against a roster of new faces. Commercially sensitive owners against financial incontinents. And above all, a measured, trophy-winning machine against some galvanising memories of glory. All things considered, Manchester City might just feel a little wary right now of those energetic noisy neighbours in the red shirts.

Mischievous view

the Etihad

It is so far more a rolling back than a reversal. For nearly 20 years from the start of the Premier League, City were a mosquito-grade nuisance for United’s champions, who between 1993 and 2000 won eight derby matches in a row. Against that, City have been in the ascent for the last three years, in which period they lead the trophy count 3-1, have won five of the past six league derbies, and can look forward to tomorrow as unarguably Manchester’s chief footballing power for the first time since the 1970s.

And yet within this dynamic, there is a sense of further fluidity. Right now, Louis van Gaal’s noisy neighbours are on a cautious upswing of their own.

Despite looking a mess at times this season, a win at the Etihad would leave United just a point behind City with 10 games played. On the other hand, City have experienced a quiet congealment, winning just twice at home – against Sheffield Wednesday and Tottenham – in six matches going back to August. City remain favourites to win tomorrow but there is a feeling of altered momentum and ungauged progress. It is, above all, an intriguing moment for the 168th Manchester derby to come rolling around.

Shifting tone

City have been reined in by financial fair play rules and by the determination of the club’s hierarchy to build a lasting infrastructure rather than simply applying a glaze on top. Still though, it must be said this is an ageing City team that could have really done with a star attacking signing to ginger up that A-list front line, an Ángel Di María or a Radamel Falcao of their own, not least with David Silva now injured.

Last season City spent £57m on energetic support acts in the shape of Jesús Navas, Stefan Jovetic and Álvaro Negredo. The year before brought another £67m, of which only Fernandinho has made any lasting impression. At the end of which City’s best players in attack and midfield – Yaya Touré, Silva, Sergio Agüero, Edin Dzeko and Samir Nasri – have all been at the club for at least three years. Agüero, 26 and a little fragile, is the youngest. The squad is still hearteningly strong. But it is perhaps looking a little slow-cooked.

For all that, City still have exactly the right points of strength to gouge their fingernails into United’s points of weakness. Silva’s absence may restrict their ability to exploit the gaps behind United’s defence on the flanks. But Agüero is a master of finding space, a player who was born on the half turn, and he will relish the chinks of light behind Danny Blind and in between the two centre backs.

In the corresponding fixture last year, Marouane Fellaini was traumatised by Touré’s movement and passing, and ended the game chasing Navas down the right wing with all the conviction of a half-cut middle-aged man stumbling across Piccadilly gardens in pursuit of the last night bus home. Fellaini will probably get a chance to put this right tomorrow, but it is hard to imagine a more pronounced test of his recent mini-revival. Against this, United’s attack has looked high grade at times.

Wayne Rooney will be fired up on his return from suspension, and with Eliaquim Mangala looking spooked in the last few weeks, expect Martin Demichelis to partner Vincent Kompany at the Etihad.

No doubt much will depend on how effectively City’s stars, and in particular Touré, the hammer of United in recent seasons, can click back into gear. For their part, this United will no doubt remain relentlessly watchable, win lose or draw, the most notable gift so far of the Van Gaal era. Either way a derby of changing colours and changing times already looks like one of the more fascinating encounters of another season of flux in English football’s champion city. Guardian Service

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