Manchester United vs. Man City bold predictions: Another loss incoming for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer?

The 186th meeting between Manchester United and Manchester City could hardly find these two old enemies in more contrasting moods. The reigning Premier League champions may have had their setbacks in recent weeks but their overall trajectory suggests a side cruising to the business end of the season. United, meanwhile, seem to be locked in one step forward and two back as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer battles to ease the pressure on him. Here’s a look at how this game could play out:

Another crushing defeat for Solskjaer

How long can Manchester United go on like this? A fair while longer it would appear. Ed Woodward and the club hierarchy blinked after the 5-0 drubbing at the hands of their great rival Liverpool, saw Antonio Conte slip through their fingers after what may prove to be a pyrrhic victory over Tottenham and once more got bailed out by Cristiano Ronaldo against Atalanta. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer remains in place and he might just whatever the outcome against Manchester City, particularly now that the obvious replacement is ensconced in north London.

It should be noted that Solskjaer has an impressive record against his cross-town rivals. While as a player he found himself the Goliath felled by City’s David, in the dugout he relishes the role of underdog. As Manchester United manager, he averages a remarkable two points per game in meetings with Guardiola. At their best, as in the 2-0 win at the Etihad last time they met, the Red Devils offered something of a benchmark for how to stifle an in-form City. 

Manchester United’s tight grasp of the space outside their box suffocates City’s attack
Wyscout/Sky Sport

Hit them hard early on and if a goal comes your way defend with Spartan ferocity as wave upon wave of attacks come at you. Flood the central areas, forcing them wide and making sure you are ready for the cutbacks that they will inevitably attempt. Then wait for frustration to take a hold, hit them on the counter and your task becomes altogether easier. That game was up there with the best performances of Solskjaer’s tenure. His players worked for each other off the ball and snapped into explosive shape on the counter without it. 

So why can they not repeat it? After all, last time out against City they left one striker up forward to chase down long balls but not really press all that much. Cristiano Ronaldo could probably do that more effectively than Anthony Martial. In theory, they could just run this approach back but start drilling into the specifics and it is hard to see it working as effectively. The switch to a back three brought a win against Tottenham but that looked like something of a false dawn when it was pulled apart so easily by Atalanta. United are still relearning this particular approach and they paid for it in wide areas, with Duvan Zapata continually finding space in the channel between Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Eric Bailly.

The latter is a likely starter at the Etihad Stadium despite his low standing on the depth chart. Raphael Varane is out for a month with a hamstring injury sustained in the Atalanta game that Victor Lindelof missed with a minor knock. Harry Maguire is playing like a man who returned from his own fitness issues much too soon, something which is reportedly the case. In such circumstances, Solskjaer could stick with a back three but it would not look as impressive as a week earlier if it were to be comprised of Bailly, Maguire and Luke Shaw. It might not take much to make a 4-2-3-1 more cohesive defensively. Last season, Solskjaer’s wingers would drop back when out of possession yet this time round, whether through in instruction or otherwise, they are all too often bystanders to the troubles at the other end. Returning to that system would likely also rob the Red Devils of Edinson Cavani, one of the few forwards who presses the opposition on a consistent basis.

United’s issue, ultimately, is that they are going into this derby attempting something akin to tactical whack a mole, constantly adjusting to the vagaries of fitness and (particularly) form of a squad that is yet to coalesce into a convincing XI. Last season, he took his team to the Etihad with a clear identity and approach, one that only needed tweaking for this toughest of tests. Now, he seems to have little if anything to underpin his side. More often than not, City mete out harsh lessons to such opposition.

Grealish fires back at doubters

Already the question marks are emerging over City’s £100-million man. Jack Grealish seemed a curious player for whom to obliterate your transfer record. One could not help but look at this elegant, dribble heavy mercurial playmaker and think “they’ve got plenty of those already.” In letting Harry Kane pass him by, it was as though Pep Guardiola was blowing his budget on the supporting cast without picking up that A-lister to bring home the box-office rewards.

Whether that was the right approach will be a ceaseless debate at least until the business end of the Premier League and Champions League season. For now, however, Grealish finds himself firmly under the spotlight. While Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez are scoring goals for fun, the most expensive of City’s attackers netted the last of his two for the season in mid-September. His travails are already filling column inches. Meanwhile, the unflattering comparisons with Jamie Tartt are rearing their head.

It is curious, then, to see Grealish joint second in the Premier League standings for chances created, leading City in terms of Opta’s expected assists metric and top of the division for shot creating actions per 90 minutes. Hardly, one would imagine, the numbers of a player who is struggling to take the step up from Aston Villa.

Grealish’s heatmap as an Aston Villa player (left) and for Manchester City (right). Though in both images it is clear he starts on the left he picks up the ball notably deeper for Villa and has more license to roam.

Perhaps the issue is that Grealish is not playing like the player that neutral fans fell head over heels with. Supporters of big teams imagined him as the roaming creator, free to rove off the left flank to shoot or create for others. Guardiola saw him in an altogether more defined role. 

This season, the England international has much less license to wander off from his berth right on the touchline. Often his job is to sit there, dragging the full back wide to create a channel in the opposition defense that Ilkay Gundogan, Bernardo Silva or Joao Cancelo. Defenders naturally gravitate to him en masse. From there, he has the quality to slip a pass through three of them and tee up another forward, as he does here for Raheem Sterling.

Grealish has drawn three defenders out wide, creating space in the inside left channel for Sterling to attack
Wyscout/Sport 2

This is not the totality of Grealish’s output but the days of him wandering far from the space between the touchline and the left corner of the box are gone. Atalanta have already proven that the space in behind Wan-Bissaka can prove to be a spot of real vulnerability for United and a spot City can exploit. Grealish could prove to be vital in punishing his opponents in that spot. It just might not be in the manner to which we have become accustomed.

Sterling’s drought goes on

It is one of the more curious statistical quirks in the Premier League that Sterling, so often the scourge of top-tier defenses, has struggled so often when facing Manchester United. They are the opponent he has most frequently faced in his professional career but in 23 meetings with the Red Devils, he is yet to find the net. Indeed, he only has two assists in those games. Tottenham and Arsenal have been on the receiving end of eight of his goals, Chelsea four and Liverpool three. It is not as if he does not make a difference for City in big games. But in the biggest on their calendar he is invariably shut out.

It seems unlikely that that will change this time out if he even makes the field. This has proven to be a frustrating start to the season with just two goals to his name. Per 90 minutes, his expected goals and shots are at around the same level they have been in previous seasons. He is actually getting more efforts away than he did in 2020-21. The issue is that the sample size is so small that any analysis of his metrics comes loaded with caveats. The 376 minutes he has played is just over an hour more than Ferran Torres, who has been sidelined for the last three weeks with a foot injury.

Sterling is shaping up to be the chief casualty of the Grealish signing, his best spot given over to the pricey new addition. He is occasionally tasked with playing a lone center forward role that ill suits him and may now have been snatched from him by Phil Foden. It is hardly the sort of position a player would want to be in as they look to break a lengthy hoodoo.

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