Manchester City may be heavy favorites, but here's why they might get exposed vs. United

The rivalry between Manchester’s biggest clubs may not be the fiercest in England, but it is certainly the most intriguing. 

For much of their existence, Manchester City have sat firmly in United’s shadow. In 1999, when legendary United manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s illustrious side won an unprecedented treble, City were playing in the third tier of English soccer. While the Red Devils were the biggest club in the world, their sky blue neighbors came perilously close to going out of business on multiple occasions.

When the United academy of the late ‘90s was producing some of the world’s finest talents, City’s entire training facility consisted of two fields that were shared with the local council. The entire youth setup trained on half a pitch, which was waterlogged into quagmire for much of the season.

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In 2008, however, the balance of power started to shift. The Citizens were purchased by the ruling family of Abu Dhabi, whose petrodollars would go on to finance big stars, world-class facilities and plenty of silverware. 

Since Ferguson’s retirement, City have won three Premier League titles, while United have utterly failed to live up to their behemoth reputation under David Moyes, Louis Van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.      

Fernandinho and Manchester City have had the upper hand on Manchester United in terms of trophies. (Photo by Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)
Fernandinho and Manchester City have had the upper hand on Manchester United in terms of trophies. (Photo by Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)

United are even threatened by City in the department in which they have traditionally excelled: club value and rampant commercialism. 

With their global reach and endless licensing deal, the Red Devils have dominated in a way that outstrips their on-field performance. But City Football Group’s recent $500 million sale of a 10% stake to U.S. investment company Silver Lake effectively makes City the most valuable soccer club in the world. The folks at Forbes also expect City to leapfrog United in the financial stakes. 

The changing status of the Manchester giants is also reflected in their current respective league positions. City are 11 points behind leaders Liverpool and aiming to win their third consecutive title. This is far from impossible, given that Pep Guardiola’s side overcame a similar deficit last season to catch up with the Reds. Liverpool are also entering an intensely busy period that will see them average a game every three days across five competitions between now and the first week of the new year. 

United, on the other hand, are propping up the top half of the table in 10th position. Solskjaer’s side will be aiming for a top-four finish, but they may end up with the humbling prospect of battling the likes of Wolves and Sheffield United for a Europa League spot. 

Last season’s Manchester derbies comprehensively belonged to City. In November 2018, City came out 3-1 winners at the Etihad to maintain a two-point lead at the summit. Then-United manager Jose Mourinho complained of a tough lead-in to the game, which was directly preceded by United’s impressive and exhausting Champions League win at Juventus Stadium.

In late April, City’s 2-0 win at Old Trafford allowed them to overtake Liverpool at the top and leave the title race in their own hands with three games remaining. It was a tough week for Solskjaer’s United, who had been trounced 4-0 at Everton days earlier. 

Understandably, City are the heavy favorites with the bookmakers for this Saturday’s derby. Guardiola’s side recovered from a disappointing result against Newcastle last weekend with a resounding midweek victory over Burnley. Sergio Aguero will be unavailable for selection this weekend, but his understudy Gabriel Jesus will be buoyed with confidence following his display at Turf Moor. 

However, don’t expect a City walkover.

Kevin de Bruyne and Manchester City may have reached their domestic peak under Pep Guardiola. (REUTERS/Gleb Garanich)
Kevin de Bruyne and Manchester City may have reached their domestic peak under Pep Guardiola. (REUTERS/Gleb Garanich)

Guardiola’s side may have rediscovered themselves midweek, but so did United. Solskjaer’s side have underwhelmed for much of the season, but they were dominant in a Marcus Rashford-inspired victory over Tottenham that handed Mourinho his first defeat as Spurs coach. 

United may have blotted their copybook with dour losses to the likes of Bournemouth, Newcastle and West Ham in this campaign, but they have a tendency to raise their game for big occasions. 

In fact, Solskjaer’s side are undefeated against “Big Six” opposition this season. In addition to their victory over Spurs, they have beaten Chelsea twice and drawn with both Liverpool and Arsenal. 

Even with Paul Pogba absent from proceedings, it is entirely reasonable to presume that United can match City on the day. Solskjaer selected the perfect tactical approach to nullify Liverpool’s press and wing play in October, and can learn from the discipline and fast breaking that earned Newcastle a draw against City last weekend. 

Despite the sensational midweek performance, this is a Manchester City side that is far from its prime. The injury to Aymeric Laporte — and the failure to buy a quality backup center back in the summer — has been ruinous in this campaign.

Due to Guardiola’s misrust of Nicolas Otamendi and youth products, Fernandinho has been drafted into defense. The 34-year-old Brazilian has been integral to City’s success due to his ability to break up play and aid the transition from defensive midfield.

Stand-ins like Ilkay Gundogan or Rodri do not perform this combative screening role in the same manner, and City have been poorer for Fernandinho’s reassignment. Vincent Kompany has been sorely missed and Guardiola’s unwise summer spending has been punished. 

Elsewhere on the field, City are also suffering. Benjamin Mendy, for example, appears to be a shadow of the player he once was. His fullback counterpart Kyle Walker has also been underperforming. This team went through a large part of last season without Kevin de Bruyne, but now it seems as if they cannot do without the dominance he brings to midfield. 

There is a perception that Guardiola’s Manchester City life cycle is reaching maturity. They are not playing on the same level of his team a couple seasons ago, perhaps due to exhaustion from his methods. There may be a reason why the Catalan tends not to stay with a particular team for too long. 

All this means that United have a solid chance of earning points in this match, as they have done many times in recent history. The last 10 Manchester derbies in all competitions are a dead heat: four wins each and two draws. With this in mind, the smart money might be on a draw. 

There is a chance that City will devastate their opposition this weekend, signaling their intent to catch up in the title race. That is certainly the opinion of the bookmakers. However, Solskjaer’s side have the potential to further expose the hairline cracks that are forming in City’s armor. 

United might not cast a dark shadow over their blue neighbors like they used to, but they can certainly throw some shade on their title hopes this weekend.  

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