5 talking points ahead of tonight's Manchester Derby

Will Mata finally get a chance in his favoured position? How can United cope with City’s midfield?

Wayne Rooney will be keen to add to his five goals in five matches against City.
Wayne Rooney will be keen to add to his five goals in five matches against City.

1. Will United overcome their big-team inferiority complex?

Playing against the current top four this season, United have secured just five points out of a possible 21 in the league. They have also won just once in games against the top nine since the beginning of the campaign (versus Arsenal, back in November).

Moreover, their recent comprehensive 3-0 defeat by Liverpool at Old Trafford indicates they have still work to do in developing their big-game mentality.

Of course, there is no doubt that United don’t have the players to match their main rivals, but that is still no excuse for the lack of fight evident in their respective resounding defeats by Liverpool, Chelsea and Man City at various points of the season.

The suspicion is that Moyes can be tactically outwitted by the top managers, and his flat 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 with an emphasis on getting crosses into the box has left United looking decidedly uninspired, predictable and easy to play against at times this season, particularly in the recent encounter with Liverpool.

Yet Moyes has shown a willingness to experiment of late that has left United fans with reasons to feel encouraged. The coach’s decision-making in their recent crucial Champions League tie with Olympiakos was a case in point — playing a diamond formation, starting Ryan Giggs, keeping faith with Rio Ferdinand, all these choices paid dividends.

Nevertheless, tonight will be a better indicator of their progress (or lack thereof) since the humiliating Liverpool loss, as title-contending Manchester City are certain to provide a substantial test.

2. Can Pellegrini’s side afford to lose tonight?

Technically, the answer to the above question is ‘yes’. Should Manchester United surprise their rivals, City’s title chances would remain in their own hands.

The Eastlands outfit would still be on track to finish one point ahead of Liverpool and level on points with Chelsea, though they’d likely be ahead of Jose Mourinho’s side in the table having acquired a far superior goal difference.

Nevertheless, with further tricky away ties to come against Liverpool, Arsenal and Everton, Manuel Pellegrini’s team will be keen to gain maximum points from tonight’s encounter.

And the odds are certainly in their favour if recent history is anything to go by — they have beaten United in four of the last five encounters between the sides. In addition, a victory tonight would be City’s third consecutive win at Old Trafford — a stat that would have seemed inconceivable only a few years ago.

3. Is Juan Mata finally going to get a chance in his favourite position?

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Manchester United v Liverpool - Old Trafford Source: EMPICS Sport

(Juan Mata has had a mixed start to life at Old Trafford)

Juan Mata has been largely restricted to playing on the left wing since his big-money move to Manchester United, despite openly stating that playing in the number 10 role is his preferred position.

With Van Persie injured, Moyes opted to hand Shinji Kagawa a rare start against West Ham at the weekend, and the Japanese international did not look out of place in the role.

Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see whether the coach sticks with Kagawa or opts to give Mata greater responsibility on this more grandiose occasion.

However, during the week, Moyes dismissed recent suggestions that Mata was being played out of position.

“Juan Mata came to play two or three different positions,” he told reporters.

“You’re never going to go through a season where you don’t have injuries and that’s why you need a squad of players.

“He’s done well in all the games but on Saturday he was closer to scoring himself and maybe should have on a couple of occasions.”

4. How will United cope with City’s midfield

In the match against Liverpool, the midfield battle was decisive, with United ultimately unable to cope with their opponents’ superiority in that area of the field.

Gavin Cooney
Reports From Qatar

Get Gavin's exclusive writing and analysis from the 2022 Fifa World Cup

Become a Member

In particular, the pace and power of Jordan Henderson was simply too much for the less aggressive and slower likes of Marouane Fellaini and Michael Carrick to handle.

Against Olympiakos, Ryan Giggs distinguished himself with an accomplished display, but Moyes would surely be reluctant to risk the veteran in such an intense environment as tonight, in which physicality is likely to be key.

Yaya Toure, Fernandinho and David Silva have overcome many teams this season with their talent and physicality — Toure and Fernandinho both played prominent roles in City’s 4-1 destruction of United in the reverse fixture earlier this season – and Silva in particular could be integral to City’s hopes tonight.

If United afford the Spanish midfielder the same freedom they allowed Raheem Sterling when he was playing in the hole against them recently, then the level of damage is likely to be similar to that which was inflicted by the Anfield club.

5. Will Rooney step up in Van Persie’s absence?

In recent years, Wayne Rooney has tended to be at his best the more the responsibility has been placed on his shoulders.

For instance, it is surely no coincidence that the England’s striker’s best season at Old Trafford occurred in the wake of Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure to Real Madrid.

Accordingly, he made a good start to life without Van Persie on Saturday, scoring twice — including one spectacular and much-discussed effort.

David Moyes has already done his bit to hype Rooney up ahead of the big game, branding him a “United legend” and tipping him to beat goalscoring records set by Denis Law and Sir Bobby Charlton.

Yet Rooney was relatively anonymous in the recent defeat by Liverpool and will need to start doing more in the big Premier League games to justify his lucrative wages. That said, he has enjoyed competing against City in recent times, as five goals in his last five games when facing them illustrates.

And a goal or two again today would go some way towards appeasing those vociferous critics who deem him to be unduly overpaid, following recent news regarding his new contract.

Ben Foster suggests West Brom were wrong to sell Shane Long>

Liverpool the neutrals’ choice, says Johnson>

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

Read next: