Manchester United got a reality check the last time they met Manchester City in the Premier League. After three wins in a row to start the season, Jose Mourinho suffered a demoralising 2-1 defeat to Pep Guardiola at Old Trafford in September.
Then, it looked like the two Manchester clubs might fight it out for the title. But when they meet at the Etihad Stadium on Thursday, there will only be a place in the Champions League up for grabs.
A win for United would see them leapfrog City in fourth place and Mourinho will fancy his chances having watching his team improve significantly since the league meeting at Old Trafford. Here’s what has changed since last time.
United’s defence had not really been tested before City turned up at Old Trafford in September. And during a first half when Guardiola’s side were outstanding, they couldn’t cope.
Mourinho has had to chop and change his back four because of injuries, but United are very well drilled and it is credit to the manager that they have got the Premier League’s second best defensive record — two goals conceded more than Tottenham’s 22 — considering the number of changes he has had to make.
Antonio Valencia has had a good season at right-back while Eric Bailly has got better as the season has gone on.
United had already started to stutter before September’s derby, needing a late goal to beat Hull the previous weekend. Both Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic started at Old Trafford seven months ago and it made Mourinho’s team look static.
Rooney has been a bit-part player since and it has allowed Mourinho to add more pace up front, whether it’s Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Marcus Rashford or Anthony Martial. It has helped United create more chances than they did at the start of the season, even if they still have a problem putting them away.
United’s midfield in September was Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini, with Rooney playing as the No.10. But it was only after Ander Herrera came on at half-time that they really started to get near City.
Herrera is the man in United’s midfield who leads the press — like the first bird to fly off a rooftop for the rest to follow – and has been a regular in the team ever since. Pogba has looked better alongside him and it leaves Mourinho with a decision to make about whether to choose Michael Carrick’s calming influence or Fellaini’s physicality as the third midfielder on Thursday.
The manager took a risk in September and it did not pay off. He threw in Mkhitaryan and Jesse Lingard at the deep end but by half-time they had to be hauled off. It will not be a gamble to start them this time.
Mkhitaryan has been one of United’s outstanding players since winning back his place in November, while Lingard has started the last eight games as Mourinho has looked to use his energy and tenacious work rate.
United are a better, more settled, team than they were in September. That should be no surprise given Mourinho has had an extra seven months to work with his players, but he is still looking for an answer to one key issue: how to convert chances into goals.
It was a problem in September and it is still a problem now. United have had 538 shots in the Premier League this season, compared to City’s 513, but have scored 13 fewer goals.
United’s 50 goals in the league this season is only one more than 13th placed Bournemouth and the lowest total of any team in the top seven. If they are to beat City, they will need to do better in front of goal.
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