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Keys to the Game: A Tactical Preview of the Manchester Derby

It's here. Come take a look at some key tactical matchups that will likely decide the fate of the derby.

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The feud between two of the world's best managers has landed in Manchester and is ready to ignite at kickoff following the short international break. Though the game may have lost a bit of its star power due to the absence of Sergio Aguero and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, the game still promises to be one of the most memorable clashes of the season. However, we're not here to talk about the hype, the eye pokes, or the media room jabs; we're here to get down to the nitty-gritty tactics.

The most pertinent weakness within this Manchester City team is something that can't necessarily be fixed with a simple tactical adjustment. Jose Mourinho's domineering team of physical specimens average at around six feet tall, while Guardiola's players come in at the lowest average in the league; a measly five foot nine. Undoubtedly this is something United will try and take advantage through aerial battles and offensive set pieces, but the ensuing battle on the pitch could make it difficult for the red side of Manchester to enjoy success in that department.

As we've seen before, the Guardiola team sheet lineup is rarely the formation that the team sets up when the game gets started. A functional 3-2-5 formation focuses on keeping the width and helps facilitate Guardiola's insistence on attacking with five and defending with five. I've personally gone into more detail about the particular nuances of his tactics here, but the battle against United will have its own specific contests that will decide the fixture.

The interesting thing about United is that even against lower fidelity opponents, they allow the opposing team to have a decent share of the possession. United have played Bournemouth, Southampton, and Hull so far this season, all teams that most would consider being far below the level that Manchester United at least strive to be par with, yet they haven't dominated possession in any game other than Hull. Against Bournemouth they held 52.6% possession, and 56.6% against Southampton. This lack of dominance showcases Mourinho's reliance on an open game brimming with the possibility of fast counters.

Guardiola, on the other hand, has brought abnormal possession percentages to the premier league with 76.9% against Sunderland, 67.1% against West Ham, and a measly 56.5% against Stoke. Some may assume that the Catalan's affinity for possession may play into United's hands considering their ability to counter, and it may very well be the case, but as we all know Guardiola's teams don't hold possession for possession's sake. Spacing, movement, and passing will all play a vital role if City are to come away victorious.

City have experimented with a few different tactical tweaks so far this season, with one of the major ones being inverted fullbacks. The fullbacks will often take up a position in midfield so that the attacking winger can isolate their defender and create a chance from the wing. This tactic, however, may be the key to the Sky Blues downfall considering the fullbacks aren't quite as able with the ball just yet. They're often caught in possession because of their inexperience farther up the pitch, leaving City open to counter attacks. Of course, the counter press that Guardiola uses as a way to eliminate the immediate threat of a fast breaking counter should account for possession loss, but the team should still seek to lose the ball as little as possible.

Possession, and the balance of it, is another crucial struggle that will likely influence the result in the greatest way. Mourinho's defensive organisation isn't a press like Jurgen Klopp's or Mauricio Pochettino's; it's a tight unit that seeks to break using a few passes into space for players running from deep. The issue for City will be plugging those holes with players that will be able to catch up to the likes of Antonio Valencia or Luke Shaw. The two United fullbacks are the players that will most likely be running on to these passes because they can provide width and extreme pace down the wings. All of Manchester City's fullbacks are over the age of thirty and will be even farther away from their usual defensive positions because of the numbers needed in order to break down the defense up front. If United are allowed to counter, they will most likely draw one of the central players in the "3" of the 3-2-5 formation out wide, giving the red devils a dangerous chance to threaten the goal or draw a foul. Either outcome isn't something the Sky Blues should be looking to allow. Therefore, the importance of executing the counter press so that United have to move the ball back before sending it forward will be essential.

Another key for Manchester City should be to keep possession as much as possible. The allowance of an open ended game where both teams are sprinting up and down the field will see United come out victorious. Strangulating the opposition with possession will nullify the chaotic nature of the game, and more importantly their key midfield creator Paul Pogba. Pogba's time at Juventus saw Max Allegri create a midfield that was geared to allow his talents to shine. Claudio Marchisio, Andrea Pirlo, and Arturo Vidal all covered for the young Frenchman's inadequacies and lifted him up so that he could take all the highlight reel moments. What the most expensive player in history isn't used to is not having the ball. Juventus and France have spoiled the dab-obsessed midfield maestro with plenty of opportunities to create. If Manchester City keep hold of the ball and don't allow Pogba to get into his groove, United will suffer.

Success at the offensive end will come down to City's ability to play through the lines with intricate passes and intelligent runs, but isolating the weakest member of the United defense is also something the Citizens should look to target. Daley Blind is an excellent reader of the game, but Mourinho has surrounded him with Eric Baily and Marouane Fellaini for a reason. The 5'11" 160-pound Dutchman makes up for his lack of physicality with an incredible footballing mind, but testing his resilience with pure physical play will inevitably cause some problems.

The outcome of the result may be talked about until the next time the two titans of football face off yet again, and perhaps even some time after that, but it's important to remember that it's one game. Three points are at stake, just like every game in the league. A loss or a win over Mourinho's United is the same as a loss or a win against any opponent in the league. The pre-match hype may suggest that this outcome will influence the rest of the year's results, and in some ways, it might, but Guardiola's philosophy is still being implemented. It's not fully fleshed out, just as Mourinho's is still a work in progress as well. The more fascinating tactical battle will be the one where both teams have a concrete grasp on their individual manager's ideologies and can fully test them out across ninety minutes.