The Big Match

War-room plans to define derby result

Tactical nous, rather than on-field skill, could be the critical factor in the City-United battle

Welcome to Manchester, a city where rivals are united by shared ambitions. Manchester United and Manchester City both have an eye on reclaiming the Premier League title. Only one can succeed, if that.

There may be seven months to go, but tomorrow's derby will help decide which team it is. Because when two financial and footballing superpowers collide, the landscape of the division can change.

One of English football's big spenders should be disappointed. These are clubs who committed some £284 million (S$608.7 million) in potential transfer fees.

Finish above City and United will probably win the league. Win at Old Trafford and Manuel Pellegrini's team will already have a five-point lead over their neighbours, plus a potential psychological advantage.

City are the top scorers, averaging almost three goals a game. Louis van Gaal's United are unbeaten at home and have conceded only one league goal on their own turf. Something has to give.

Defences have tended to suffer in this most dramatic of derbies. The last four Old Trafford clashes have brought 19 goals. City have been rampant, scoring 13.

Yet Pellegrini lost his 100 per cent derby record in April when United's 4-2 win allowed van Gaal, whose side had lost 0-1 away, to claim an aggregate victory over the campaign.

This should tell if it marked the start of a shift in the balance of power. Van Gaal inherited a United team who finished 22 points behind City in 2014. While Pellegrini has the strongest pool of players in the Premier League, van Gaal may be able to field the better starting XI now.

City are deprived of David Silva and Sergio Aguero, provider and scorer of six league goals respectively this season. An attacking understudy, in Wilfried Bony, and a £100 million pair of creators, in Raheem Sterling and Kevin de Bruyne, have to ensure they are not missed.

Yet the pivotal figure may be in the dugout, not on the pitch. Van Gaal can be a law unto himself. He got his tactics spectacularly wrong in the 0-3 defeat at Arsenal and brilliantly right in the 3-0 win over Everton. Anthony Martial excelled on the left and Wayne Rooney struck as a striker on Merseyside, so each could reprise that role. Marouane Fellaini, who tormented City last season, might be the impact substitute.

Van Gaal ought to persevere with specialist centre-backs, in Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, rather than the playmaker at the back, Daley Blind. Pellegrini could counter by using de Bruyne as a false nine.

City have scored 11 goals in their last two league games and have a history of turning a local rivalry into demolition derbies but, for all the technical talent on show, the battle may be tactical. Van Gaal will hope so.

MAN UNITED V MAN CITY

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 24, 2015, with the headline 'War-room plans to define derby result'. Print Edition | Subscribe