It has become an article of faith when discussing Manchester United that whenever Ole Gunnar Solskjaer needs a result, he gets one. And strangely enough, that result often comes against Manchester City.
This time last year, a thrilling backs-to-the-wall victory at the Etihad decided by United’s ability on the counter-attack breathed new life into their season, coming only a few days after an equally important win over Tottenham Hotspur.
As is the way in the Solskjaer era, another slump was not far around the corner, but a week after Burnley’s first win at Old Trafford in 58 years, a spirited 1-0 win over City at the Etihad in the second leg of the EFL Cup semi-finals helped to save face.
That win came at the beginning of a long unbeaten run which eventually stretched to 19 games and included a 2-0 win over City at Old Trafford – still, nine months later, the last time United played in front of their own fans.
Solskjaer triumphed in three of last season’s four Manchester derbies. In all three, United lost – or rather, did not even attempt to contest – the battle for possession. Solskjaer’s game plan was simple and effective: sit deep, stay organised and break at speed.
It will be a surprise if United do not employ the same strategy at Old Trafford for the 183rd and this season’s first Manchester derby, especially as a group stage exit from the Champions League has only made a result on Saturday all the more important.
After the first of those three City defeats, Pep Guardiola himself admitted that it was difficult to legislate for the pace of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and the rest of United’s frontline on the counter-attack. “Sometimes it’s not possible to control it,” he said.
“Normally we are able to control it but today we struggled a bit, especially for the quality of the opponents. Of course we can do something wrong and improve, but we cannot deny the quality of Rashford, Martial and the other ones. We’ll try to learn for the future.”
And yet there is reason to believe that Guardiola has learned lessons – from that game and others – so that City are better equipped to deal with United’s threat on the break.
While City’s relative lack of goals compared to seasons gone by has been the subject of much debate over the last few weeks and months, one of its overlooked knock-on effects has been a significant improvement at the back.
In their last 10 games in all competitions, they have conceded only three times and have kept five consecutive clean sheets. In the league, Guardiola’s defence is the second-best behind leaders Tottenham. By xG, it is the best full stop. And all without appointing Sam Allardyce as a specialist defensive coach.
It is, admittedly, after spending a club record £64.3m fee on Ruben Dias, who has started every league game since his arrival from Benfica.
The ease with which Dias has adapted to life in Manchester – plus the additional cover provided by Nathan Ake, Eric Garcia and a rejuvenated John Stones – has solved one of last season’s problem positions, to the extent that the previously undroppable Aymeric Laporte is currently out of favour.
Things have also changed directly in front of the defence, where Guardiola has increasingly trusted Rodri and Ilkay Gundogan to play as a double pivot. That pairing was unpopular last season among City supporters, who were used to seeing Fernandinho anchoring a more attack-minded midfield, but City’s defensive record with Rodri and Gundogan is hard to ignore.
The partnership is still in its infancy as a double pivot – Rodri and Gundogan have only played alongside each other in a 4-2-3-1 shape eight times over the last year – but in those games, City have conceded just three goals and only 13 shots on target against the likes of Arsenal, Real Madrid and two meetings with Liverpool.
Guardiola played Rodri and Gundogan together at the base of midfield for the first time this season when Jurgen Klopp’s side were held to a 1-1 draw on their visit to the Etihad last month. It may well be that this is now Guardiola’s big-game midfield or simply his first-choice full stop. He persisted with them against Olympiakos, Burnley and Fulham and City kept three clean sheets.
Both have question marks hanging over their fitness for Saturday. Rodri sat out of Wednesday’s 3-0 win over Marseille after not being 100 per cent fit, while Gundogan came off at half time with an ankle issue which will be assessed. If either is unavailable, Fernandinho will likely step in. If both cannot play, Guardiola will have a difficult decision to make in midfield.
Even without that pairing, another factor in City’s favour is their management of the calendar. There is a belief among those close to the training ground that City’s greater conservatism this season is a consequence of navigating the condensed fixture schedule and managing the heightened risk of injury in this uniquely chaotic year. Guardiola has turned the dial down slightly in the hope of keeping something in reserve for the decisive final months, in turn making them more defensively solid.
This is not to say that City are now immune to counter-attacks, as anyone who remembers Giovanni Lo Celso’s goal in the 2-0 defeat to Tottenham a few weeks ago will eagerly point out. But a few days later, it was put to Guardiola that Tottenham and other elite sides had essentially ‘worked out’ City and that a simple counter-attacking game was their Kryptonite. He vehemently disagreed.
“Come on, the first action was not a counter attack,” Guardiola insisted, referring to Son Heung-Min’s opening goal. “They run two times in 90 minutes and the second one they were brilliant – the commit from Harry Kane, the pass for Lo Celso and the good finish. We conceded two counter-attacks, [the Lo Celso goal] and another was offside and no more. They had four shots on target and two goals. Congratulations.”
Guardiola then claimed that apart from Liverpool – and Chelsea, sometimes – the rest of City’s Premier League rivals set up reactively rather than proactively against his side, never attempting to beat them at their own game. “The other ones defend so deep and you have to find a way to avoid it. We weren’t always able to do it but that’s not the big problem right now, the counter-attack.”
City’s defensive record to date would appear to prove him right. It also suggests that Solskjaer may need to carefully consider his game plan. United’s speed on the break gave them the edge over their rivals in the derby last season but City pose a different, more defensively sound proposition now.