At the beginning of the season the main narrative surrounding the start of the Premier League season was the renewal of the rivalry between Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola, who found themselves in new positions at opposite sides of the Manchester derby.
So far this season the clubs have met twice with Pep Guardiola leading his Manchester City side to victory at Old Trafford in the Premier League and Jose Mourinho coming out on top with Manchester United in the fourth round of the EFL cup.
The opening two matches in this series serve as an effective warm up leading up to this fixture, as with time running out in the season the stakes become raised considerably. City currently hold the ascendancy but only by a hair, sitting in fourth place and holding the prized Champions League qualifying place, whilst United are only one point and one place behind them.
While the money on offer for the club that secures a place in next season’s Champions League is not insignificant it also does not make that much of a difference to the finances of United or City, who rank amongst the wealthiest in world football. The prize of pride in a football mad city is far more important and will drive the two sides to give their all in the forthcoming derby match.
For as much as Guardiola in particular is regarded as the best coach in modern football the jury is still very much out on the squad at his disposal, with the club set for another summer of upheaval as the squad is reshaped more in the Spaniards image. There are similar concerns at United as fans slowly to come to terms with the style of football favoured by Mourinho, which seems to clash with the image of what a United team should look like.
Where though will this crucial battle be won or lost?
During his time as coach of Bayern Munich there was a shift in the tactical methodology of Pep Guardiola favouring a highly technical style of play with short, quick passing focused through the centre of the pitch. At Bayern there was change with Guardiola adjusting to fit the qualities of the squad available, preferring to attack through overloads on one side of the field before shifting the ball quickly to the other side where a winger will be isolated against a single defender.
At City we have seen Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling emerge as extremely effective attacking outlets with their pace and direct style proving extremely difficult to defend against. This has served only to reaffirm the new focus on wide attacks from Guardiola.
In this match we should see City choose to attack down the wide areas as much as possible with Sane expected to start wide left in particular, providing an interesting matchup against Antonio Valencia.
By stretching the width of the field and having Sterling and Sane hold high and wide positions they also create spaces between the defensive structure of the opposition in to which the likes of David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Aguero can drift.
The defensive unit for City so far this season has left a lot to be desired with the likes of Vincent Kompany (when fit) Gael Clichy, Bakary Sagna and Pablo Zabaleta all showing signs of the negative effect of age and John Stones making the types or errors closely associated with young players of his age.
This provides an opportunity for Man United’s attackers. With Zlatan Ibrahimovic injured for the rest of the season we should see Marcus Rashford given an opportunity, and his pace could be key in unlocking the City defensive structure. That can be coupled with the similar athletic profile of Anthony Martial, whose pace and direct running from the wide areas to the centre of the field, can cause chaos for the ageing City rearguard.
This pace however can only be used properly if there is adequate service from the midfield and the performances of the likes of Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera in particular will be important in providing the ammunition to the rapid forward line.
This result of this match could go a long way towards providing the narrative for the end of the season. When the dust has settled and the season is dissected by fans and journalists alike, then the final league position and crucially the qualification of the Champions League could well colour the final impression that the first season of Guardiola and Mourinho have in English football.
The importance of pace on this match cannot be underestimated with both sides being built around young and quick wide forwards who represent the future of each club. The question remains whether the two coaches can find a way to nullify the threat of their pace whilst retaining their own attacking threat.