Man City take their pure co-operative team to take on Manchester United’s superstar tendency in the 186th meeting of the two clubs.
The two teams heading into the 186th Manchester derby are both riven with contradictions that it makes the season ahead wholly unpredictable.
Manchester United are a team of individual talents who have become reliant on the one individual who, more than any other, makes them weaker as a team.
Manchester City are a team in the purest sense of the word but who, when push comes to shove, have shown the need for a goalscorer, missing the individuality of Sergio Aguero.
Never in the history of this grand old game have the two sides been such polar opposites, in terms of their approach to the football they play.
The Blues have been winning games, and occasionally losing them, this season, because they failed to land a proven goalscoring striker in the summer.
United have been winning some, and losing some, precisely because they did.
It is not entirely unprecedented. In fact, United have won three of the last four derbies, against a patently superior City team, simply because their individuals shone on the day, and City’s team system malfunctioned.
It is just that now the Reds have the ultimate individual in Cristiano Ronaldo, a player who lets others do the donkey work and then justifies that by sticking the ball in the net.
City had a brief dalliance with the notion of signing Ronaldo in the summer, although large sections of their support were solidly against it, partly because they learned to loathe the preening superstar in his first spell at Old Trafford, but also because his brand of ‘me-me’ football is the complete antithesis of everything Pep Guardiola has built at City.
Guardiola’s opinions on whether the Blues should have signed the Portugal ace are closely guarded, but it is easy to imagine he was sorely conflicted — knowing that having no proven goalscorers would impede City this season, but also knowing that a player like Ronaldo could disrupt the smooth running of his beautiful Blue machine.
The thought of him trying to persuade 36-year-old Ronaldo to tear up his script and knuckle down to some serious pressing and approach work. as Guardiola did with Sergio Aguero, is enough to make any supporter shudder.
But the fact is, as the Old Trafford clash approaches, if City play to their full capacity, the only thing that would stop them winning the game is failing to finish the chances they create.
It has happened plenty of times this season — Tottenham, Southampton, Paris St Germain, West Ham, Crystal Palace — and they have found it tough against teams that sit in, defend hard, and seek to counter with pace.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer does not come across as one of the game’s great tactical thinkers. But he will have recognised that his team were walloped by Liverpool because they tried to change overnight from a team that needs to dig in against superior outfits, rather than fall into the trap of trying to get in the faces of better players.
Their attempts to press Liverpool high left them wide open — and in the unlikely event that they repeat that mistake, a repeat scoreline could be on the cards against City.
United are far more likely to revert to the approach that has seen them defy the odds and rack up three wins and a draw in the last four Premier League derbies.
They will do what Palace did, defend deep and with strict discipline, and then seek to release the pace and talents of Bruno Fernandes, Mason Greenwood, Marcus Rashford and Edinson Cavani with swift counters.
The United “DNA”, we are told, is about attacking football — the Stretford End have never replaced their old “Attack, attack, attack!” chant with one that nervously requests “Adopt a low block, keep the full-backs tucked in and defend the crosses!”
They tried to indulge that against Liverpool and were exposed and ruthlessly punished. They will have learned a hard lesson and will have to play as the underdogs, rather than try to match City for quality across the pitch.
City’s task is to do the opposite — to stick to their usual game plan, stifling the opposition, pinning them back with pressing that appears frenetic but is actually highly drilled — as they did against Chelsea.
That is what the Blues need. In recent games they have allowed the intensity and organisation of their press to drop a level, and it has cost them.
Their problem is that the game falls within the 72-hour shadow following the Brugge game, in which sports science dictates that a player’s physical and mental recovery is incomplete.
That will partly be offset by the return of rested players like Gabriel Jesus, Kevin De Bruyne and Ruben Dias, but key players in the regaining and retention of the ball like Bernardo Silva, Rodri and Phil Foden will be asked to go again.
If City get that aspect of their game right, as they did at Stamford Bridge, and take the chances that come their way, they should win the game.
United by contrast, will rely on being able to soak up the pressure, release their match-winners, and then hope that individuals — and Ronaldo in particular — can be as ruthless as he has in the last few weeks.