Manchester derby: More at stake than just city bragging rights

Manchester derby acts as status report on who spent riches more wisely

Eric Cantona, who has a good line on most things, had a good line on the Manchester derby. "The Blues and the Reds invade the streets, and if your team wins the city belongs to you," he said. Which is, it must be said, a slightly pointed "if" given that in Cantona's time United went unbeaten in nine derbies as City burnt their way through the fond, fevered Temple of Doom era.

In the last five years the Manchester derby has of course been about more than only city bragging rights. Albeit there has been a slight tailing-off since Vincent Kompany was able to claim, three years ago, that this was the biggest club match in the world after the hyper-glam contortions of El Clasico.

Title eliminator

In this respect tomorrow’s game at Old Trafford represents, if anything, a slight upturn in the urgency of the occasion. For the first time since December 2012, when a 3-2 victory at the Etihad left Alex Ferguson’s farewell XI six points clear at the top of the table, United versus City looks like something close to an early-season title eliminator.

Ten weeks into the season only United and City have been on top of the Premier League outside of a brief Leicester surge in early August. Victory for City would leave them in a position of gathering strength as league leaders. For Louis van Gaal’s second-season United, two points off in third place, a win against City would represent perhaps the most significant result so far of the post-Ferguson era.


Both teams are likely to look to a pair of derby first-timers for inspiration. It is not clear how far you would have to go back to find the last time two key players in a Manchester derby were called Tony and Kevin (Henry and Moran in 1979, perhaps?). But for now Kevin De Bruyne and Anthony Martial – both of whom have played without fear encumbered by overcooked price tags – look most likely to have a decisive say in their team's fortunes.

Beyond this there is a wider sense of flux about the occasion. On one hand for the first time since 2004-’05 both teams come into the derby having failed to win a trophy of any kind the season before. At the same time both have been energetically stocked with exciting new additions. Last season Chelsea against City was described as the most expensively put together club match in English football history, with the combined value of the squads close to £500 million (€700m). Sunday will probably trump that, the combined value of both probable starting XIs – City come in at around £260m, United something like £235m – almost certain to set a new mark in the Premier League.

English football’s all-time money game may still be some way short of recent meetings between Real Madrid and Barcelona. But it is in keeping with the general sense of retrenchment at the top of the Premier League that despite such riches both teams are still in a state of aggressive renewal.

United could field up to seven starting outfield players signed in the last two seasons. City must continue to build around the absence of the conjoined creative brilliance of David Silva and Sergio Agüero. Both will be near the top of the table come the end of the season. Quite how near will be decided by occasions such as these and the lessons learned en route.

Of the two City are more obviously in their stride, a team that look so much more compelling with Kompany in the centre of defence, as he may be this weekend. City have a well-grooved pattern, always looking to spread the play, to overload on the flanks, to win in the simplest way by pressing an opponent back and scoring goals.

Key component

Currently the key component part looks to be the De Bruyne-Yaya Touré axis and a growing sense of synchronicity between City's first flagship signing and their most recent. According to a recent interview in L'Equipe, Touré is not that happy right now, but given the source of his current beef is a lack of love from the English football press this feels like a case of a lion unduly bothered by a gnat.

His form has been good in the last few games though. There is no doubt Toure has slowed down a little after 14 years of top-flight football from Ukraine to Catalonia to Manchester. But at times in company with De Bruyne he has looked to have regained some of the old hyper-drive, the ability to carry the ball 30 yards and scatter an opposition midfield.

De Bruyne is a master of the counterattack, a threat from any part of the pitch when he picks the ball up in those transitional moments.

For United the picture is a little less evolved, a little more transitional still. Sometimes this season Van Gaal has looked like a man more interested in winning an argument than a football match, the perseverance with a well-seasoned spine leaving the midfield short on speed and vim.

Plenty of United fans would like to see Van Gaal field his most United players – Memphis Depay, Juan Mata, Ander Herrera – together, if only for the ride.

If this is a tension that is yet to resolve itself, United can look with great satisfaction on the impact made by Martial who simply looks a very intelligent, high-class attacking player. An occasional shift of position to the flank has diluted his goalscoring impact. But Martial has played well, even while going four hours in the Premier League without a goal. Against City his ability to drift wide and snipe into the space behind the full-backs could be a factor.

The likelihood is there will be goals at Old Trafford. And beyond that a sense in English football’s most expensively assembled game, of two teams still gearing up, a status report on what could even, with a little tinkering, still turn into something closer to a race for the line.

Manchester United v Manchester City

Old Trafford, Sunday, Sky Sports 1, 2.05pm

(Guardian Service)