There have been suggestions that Manchester City have a mental block when they face United, given the two defeats this season.
It is difficult to say whether there is a psychological issue at play; in the reverse fixture, Guardiola’s side had 72% possession, 23 shots to 11 and 16 corners to three.
Although they gave up clear cut chances in that encounter, they were not outplayed – it was just a case of certain details being amiss.
The second defeat then came when they had already built up a two-goal lead from the first leg.
City have also been victorious in seven of their last 10 trips to Old Trafford in all competitions so, ordinarily, they do not have too much trouble when crossing the city.
However, there are signs that Solskjaer can get the better of Guardiola in individual matches, with two wins and two defeats from the four Manchester derbies he has so far taken charge of.
The Tactics Board
For December’s trip to the Etihad, the Norwegian operated with a 4-2-4-0 formation and oversaw a 2-1 league win. Then in January’s trip, he went with a 3-4-1-2 and they won the League Cup Semi-Final second leg 1-0, although they lost the tie on aggregate.
Both times, the strategy was to flood the midfield to force the opposing full-backs or wing-backs forward, then break using split-strikers to exploit the space out wide.
As evidenced by October’s 1-1 draw with Liverpool, Solskjaer is not afraid to employ a pragmatic, counter-attacking strategy when at home to local rivals – even if some fans may want to see their team be more proactive on familiar soil.
Nine games unbeaten after two smart January signings. United’s season could have been dead, but it’s very much alive thanks to Fernandes and Ighalo and some Solskjaer pragmatism. #mufc
— Dominic Booth (@DomBooth19) March 5, 2020
We might predict City to deploy a 4-2-3-1 that can shift into a 3-2-4-1, with a double-pivot of Rodri and Ilkay Gundogan sitting throughout.
Kyle Walker may at times fill in at right centre-back to protect that channel with his pace, allowing Raheem Sterling to provide the width.
If Fred and Scott McTominay can deny space for Phil Foden and Bernardo Silva as alternating number 10s, though, then Benjamin Mendy will have to overlap on the left side – which could be City’s main area of concern.
Although Mendy’s attacking rampages were unproblematic with the excellent Aymeric Laporte patrolling that channel, Nicolas Otamendi has little of the Frenchman’s mobility.
A huge chasm could therefore open for Mason Greenwood – or possibly Jesse Lingard – to make some headway as the right-sided forward.
From there, United can either get an early cross in for Anthony Martial to get across from the left, or retain possession and get Bruno Fernandes on the ball, or bring Fred into the game cutting onto his left foot.
That is not to say that these things will happen, but Solskjaer is certainly capable of producing a winning strategy for big games.
Manchester United’s exciting midfield
Paul Pogba remains sidelined for United but, given how impressive Bruno Fernandes has been since signing in January, one would have to question whether the Red Devils will miss the Frenchman quite as much as they might ordinarily.
Fernandes, Fred and McTominay appear to complement one another well with the former’s creativity, vision and eye for goal combining with the latter two’s energy and dynamism.
Since his Premier League debut, Bruno Fernandes has played more passes into the box (44) than any other Premier League midfielder. Kevin De Bruyne is 2nd with 41.
Playmaker. 🙌🙌🙌 pic.twitter.com/QwriHXNHlM
— Statman Dave (@StatmanDave) March 3, 2020
Fred, this season, averages 2.3 tackles per 90 minutes and 1.5 interceptions, along with 1.7 shots and successful dribbles – when a team has a midfielder who can excel in so many aspects of a game, it becomes easier to smoothly transcend different phases of play.
McTominay, meanwhile, draws inevitable comparisons with Darren Fletcher due to his Scottish family roots and energetic playing style, but he is arguably capable of a touch more accuracy in possession – so this United midfield offers much to be excited by.
Will Manchester City miss De Bruyne?
Kevin De Bruyne has a shoulder injury and Pep Guardiola may be reluctant to risk the influential playmaker, especially with a Champions League last-16 second leg with Real Madrid to come.
Guardiola will therefore hope that Phil Foden, impressive in Sunday’s League Cup Final 2-1 victory over Aston Villa, will relish free reign in the Belgian’s absence.
Phil Foden truly is a special young player. Yes, plenty to learn etc, still only 19, but already such a talent. Touch, composure and some of his passing, the timing of release and weight, exceptional. Has to go to the Euros. #mcfc #eng
— Henry Winter (@henrywinter) March 1, 2020
Ederson, Kyle Walker, Fernandinho, Ilkay Gundogan and Raheem Sterling are all expected to come back into the starting XI and perhaps lift the team, after a comfortable if uninspiring midweek 1-0 FA Cup win at Sheffield Wednesday.
City have won their last five games, beating esteemed opposition in Leicester and Real Madrid in that sequence, for which they deserve credit.
It could be recognised, though, that the latter four of those victories have come by a one-goal margin – and they were unable to kill off Villa and Wednesday.
Guardiola’s side of course deserved to lift the League Cup trophy last week, but their method of managing the game was not quite in line with the brilliance we have seen from them in the last two seasons, when they used the ball so well – and took their chances so ruthlessly – that most unextraordinary opponents did not get a sniff in the latter stages.
A repeat of those issues could be costly against better opposition.
The Betting Angle
Manchester United finished 32 points off City last season, but they have halved the gap this term.
While United are still some way off where they need and expect to be as a club, there are signs of them heading in the right direction – especially in terms of recruitment.
They have accrued 13 points from six games against top-four opposition and, until last week, were the only side to take a Premier League point off Liverpool.
Plus, United need the points to aid their neck-and-neck scramble for Champions League qualification with Chelsea and potentially Leicester.
While City should not need motivation for the derby, they are highly likely to finish second regardless of Sunday’s outcome and do not need the points in the same way.
Given all the above, BetVictor’s 5/4 on the Double Chance: Manchester United or Draw looks fantastic value – our bet will land if Solskjaer’s side maintain their nine-game unbeaten run.