Following elimination from the Europa League at the hands of Liverpool in midweek, only a win will do for Manchester United in the Manchester derby on Sunday.
Of course, Manchester City represent rather formidable opposition, boasting the most talented and holistic squad throughout the Premier League. But victory over the noisy neighbours will give United half a chance of qualifying for the Champions League this term, dragging their fouth-placed rivals back down the table and reducing the deficit to just a single point.
Easier said than done, especially considering Sunday’s installment of the Manchester derby will take place at the Etihad Stadium rather than Old Trafford. But form and home advantage tend to go out of the window in local derbies, so claiming all three points is by no means an impossible task.
In order to do that, however, there are a number of questions United gaffer Louis van Gaal must answer first, regarding team selection, tactics and how to curtail the influence of the opposition. With that in mind, here are FIVE dilemmas LVG needs to solve before Sunday’s 4pm kick-off.
Marcus Rashford exploded onto the scene with four goals and one assist in his first two appearances for Manchester United, but he’s failed to impact the scoreline – via either striker or set up – in his five outings since.
That’s not to suggest the 19-year-old’s recent performances have been poor; he still offers United the energy, enthusiasm and physicality in the final third they often lacked at the start of the season and he links up well with the Red Devils’ midfield.
But the honeymoon period is clearly over and Rashford no longer comes with that element of surprise, so perhaps it’s unfair to expect him to undertake such an important role in the Red Devils’ starting Xi, especially for such an important game.
With Wayne Rooney out injured, the only real alternative at Louis van Gaal’s disposal is Anthony Martial, who scored against Liverpool via the penalty spot in midweek. Many would like to see the Frenchman deployed up top instead of out wide, but is LVG ready for a significant starting Xi shakeup?
In perhaps the biggest boost United could ask for ahead of the Manchester derby, City captain Vincent Kompany has been ruled out injured for the next month.
Anybody who has watched City regularly this season will know how sorely the Belgium international will be missed; he’s the Citizens’ orchestrating leader and they just aren’t the same side without him – most particularly at the back.
His absence leaves Manuel Pellegrini with the rather tough choice of selecting Eliaquim Mangala or Martin Demichelis at the heart of defence, both of whom have been plagued by relentless individual errors this season, so Manchester United really have to find a way of taking advantage.
That could require Louis van Gaal putting his philosophy on hold and implementing more direct tactics to test Mangala or Demichelis as frequently as possible, whilst set pieces are another area where Kompany’s absence will be felt – which could call for the gangly services of Marouane Fellaini.
If Louis van Gaal can claim to have fulfilled one part of his brief as Manchester United manager since taking over at the start of last season, it’s the section pertaining to opportunities for young players.
Partly by his own design, partly as a consequence of injuries, 14 academy graduates have been issued debuts by the Dutchman, whilst the likes of Memphis Depay, Anthony Martial and Luke Shaw have been drafted in via the transfer market.
The Red Devils Xi that drew with Liverpool in midweek contained four players aged 23 or younger and although that saw United eliminated from the Europa League, their youthful cohort were by no means abysmal by any stretch of the imagination.
But the Manchester derby represents United’s most important fixture of the season; a chance to get one over the noisy neighbours and give themselves an outside chance of claiming a top four finish; and the experience required to keep level-headed will be crucial on Sunday.
Which begs the question of whether some of the youngsters should sit this one out. Matteo Darmian or Antonio Valencia can come back in for Guillermo Varela, whilst Bastian Schweinsteiger or Morgan Schneiderlin could take Jesse Lingard’s place in midfield.
With Wayne Rooney sidelined for at least a few more weeks, Juan Mata represents the most established attacking option and creative influence at Louis van Gaal’s disposal for the Manchester derby. But a recurring problem has plagued the Spaniard and his manager throughout the season; where should he actually be deployed in the Manchester United starting Xi?
The stats suggest right midfield, a position he has claimed five goals and four assists in 18 appearances from this season. But a lack of natural pace has always reduced the 27-year-old’s potential to impact from out wide and his form on the flank has been, overall, a little underwhelming.
Considering United need a win, it makes sense to move Mata to No.10 – in theory, his best and most natural position that he has taken up 13 times already this term. But that comes with its own set of problems, particularly the midfielder’s lack of physicality and defensive instincts, which could cost United dearly with the likes of Fernandinho and Yaya Toure making surging runs from deep positions.
So it’s essentially a question of playing it safe or taking a risk. Something tells me LVG will opt for the former scenario.
Manchester City are a supremely talented side boasting quality in all departments and there is an obvious danger in United focusing all of their attentions on stopping one player. The Citizens have the potential to hurt them from pretty much every angle.
Nonetheless, if you can stop midfield maestro David Silva, who has claimed ten Premier League assists this season whilst averaging 2.8 created chances per match, you have a pretty good chance of claiming at least a point against the Citizens.
Indeed, the vast majority of their attacking play goes through the Spaniard and Arsenal managed to claim a 2-0 win at the Etihad last season by simply suffocating him with a three-man press.
So should United adopt a similar approach this Sunday? Morgan Schneiderlin, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Michael Carrick and Marouane Fellaini all have the physical prowess to box in the playmaking No.10, but LVG has always been the kind of manager to assert his own ideals on the opposition.