Connect in the back of the net

The title, it seems, is going to Manchester (despite the fact that City had a better points total this time last year and still ended up 3rd).

The prospect is tantalising. A city divided. Old Money vs New Money. Red vs Blue. And then there are the managers. Pep Guardiola vs Jose Mourinho, a repeat of the infamous Real Madrid Barcelona clashes of just under a decade ago.

The story is so good in fact, that Chelsea have been completely overlooked. The only question anyone is asking is, which side of Manchester is the trophy going to?

 

Equally Exceptional Squads

Both sides have spent a pretty penny to acquire some of the world’s finest footballing talent and after a few years of questionable returns of their investments, this season everything seems to be settling into place. 

Manchester City’s squad is overflowing with attacking talent, so much so that even their defenders are better at attacking (even John Stones scored twice against Feyenoord in the Champions League).

The team is set up to utterly dominate opponents via a fluid attack supported by wing backs who allow wide players to drift into more dangerous central areas, all of which is orchestrated by David Silva and quite possibly the Premier League’s best player, Kevin de Bruyne. That’s also in addition to the world class Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus, who already looks like a steal at £27m.

So far City have been almost unstoppable and have scored 21 goals in just 6 games. The record for goals scored in a campaign in 103 and at this rate City stand to reach 133.

Perhaps most promisingly, City’s goals and assists have come from a variety of players, meaning injury to individual players is unlikely to have too much of an impact on their march to glory.

Aguero has 6 goals, Sterling has 5, Jesus 4 and Sane 3, while David Silva has 6 assists and de Bruyne 3, as does Aguero. Furthermore, each of City’s new full backs (Kyle Walker, Benjamin Mendy and Danilo) has at least one assist to their name.

However, despite their attacking improvement it was City’s defence that derailed their title challenge last year and so far, things look much rosier. A line appears to have been drawn under the disaster that was the signing of Claudio Bravo, who at one point had conceded 16 goals from just 24 shots, with the signing of Ederson.

The Brazilian keeper looks to be a much more commanding presence, evidenced in his challenge with Liverpool’s Sadio Mane. Ederson’s addition, alongside top class wing backs has helped City to concede just 2 goals so far, a League low shared with United.

By contrast, United’s squad is all about power. For the second season in a row Jose Mourinho has brought in a few players who have made a big difference (bar Lindelof) and who have contributed to making United the most physically intimidating side in the Premier League.

Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic, 6’2” and 6’4’’ respectively, have proven master-stokes. Lukaku has 8 goals in 8 games and has equalled Louis Saha’s record of scoring in his first 6 League appearances for United.

Matic has League high stats for passing, tackling and interceptions, but his biggest impact has been unleashing Paul Pogba who, before injury looked every bit the midfield titan United expected him to be.

Alongside Pogba a number of other players have overcome difficult seasons last year to demonstrate their true potential and none more so than Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

Unable to get in the side until the mid-way point of last season, Mkhitaryan already has 5 assists and a goal and is demonstrating the kind of form that saw his register 13 goals and 20 assists in his final season with Borussia Dortmund.

Anthony Martial too looks to have brushed off whatever was bothering him last season and is playing with the clinical efficiency of a sniper, having managed 3 goals and an assist in just 122 minutes. Marcus Rashford too continues to improve and looks every bit United’s next superstar.

Defensively United are more secure than their City rivals and in addition to the continued excellence of Eric Bailly, Phil Jones is finally starting to play like the centre back he promised to be in 2012.

Mourinho’s side also have the benefit of boasting the League’s, arguably the World’s, best goalkeeper in David De Gea whose superhuman reactions have already been relied upon against Stoke and Everton.

 

Where’s the weakness?

City’s weakness remains their back line, which has long looked vulnerable if Vincent Kompany is injured and invariably he is.

Although in attack they are unsurpassable and their ability to dominate possession lessens the burden on their defence, already this season they have looked fragile particularly against Liverpool before Mane’s sending off.

While at times the defence fragility can be overlooked, over the course of a season Guardiola may rue his failure to bring in Jonny Evans, exactly the kind of no nonsense, reliable centre back City have needed for a long time.

However, City’s most integral player and the man Guardiola will be hoping doesn’t get injured, is Fernandinho. The Brazilian midfielder is the link between defence and attack, shielding the back line and covering spaces left by the marauding fullbacks while also providing cover for his midfield partners, allowing them to play with almost total freedom.

Although City have Yaya Toure and Ilkay Gundogan on their books for various reasons Fernandinho is irreplaceable and should he get injured for any extended period, expect City will find it almost impossible to win the title.

United’s squad is a much more pragmatic construction whose physicality is custom built for the Premier League.

Three 4-0 wins already demonstrates an attacking fluidity not seen at Old Trafford for a long time and which demonstrates the importance of Matic whose importance to United is similar to Fernandinho’s for City. However, United key player is quickly proving to be Henrikh Mkhitaryan whose vision and technical ability enables him to link the pace and trickery of Martial/Rashford with the power of Lukaku.

Last season United’s downfall was their inability to convert dominance into goals. As a result Mourinho’s side drew a League high 15 games, resulting in a 6th placed finish.

While the signs so far have been good, evidence of United’s fragility remains with the side riding their luck against Stoke, Everton and resorting to defensive pragmatism to round out a 1-0 victory against Southampton.

At the moment United look like an ominous prospect but should they lose Mkhitaryan, they will very quickly look toothless again.

 

It ends with the manager

Ultimately, the most important factor in deciding which half of Manchester the title goes to will be the managers.

Guardiola and Mourinho faced off previously when they were in charge of Barcelona and Real Madrid. Each got one over on the other with Guardiola winning La Liga in the 2010/11 season, before Mourinho won the title the next season with a record points total.

The two offer competing visions of how to go about winning titles and that battle is now being fought in Manchester.

Guardiola’s method is philosophical and at times idealistic.

His sides play with a fluidity and attacking freedom which, when it works, is both unstoppable and irresistible. Yet question marks remain over his approach to the defensive side of the game, fuelled last season by the revelation that he doesn’t practice tackling in training.

The Spaniard’s main criticism however, has been that at both Barcelona and Bayern he has walked into squads so good that Stinky Dave from down the pub could have won at least a double.

Despite overlooking the extensive tactical input that Guardiola had on both squads the jury is still out as to whether he is can build a side capable of winning titles, or if he simply has to walk into one.

Historically Mourinho’s biggest downfall has been the way in which he has alienated players, fans and boards in his pursuit of glory. His public criticism of Chris Smalling and Luke Shaw last year was further evidence of his willingness to ruffle feathers.

At the moment his side looks united, but the danger remains that as with Chelsea, his team spontaneously combusts and Mourinho is left looking for another job.

However, unlike Guardiola, Jose Mourinho has proven time and time again that has the ability to forge title winning sides having done so with Chelsea, then with Inter Milan, then Real Madrid, before doing so with Chelsea once more.

Mourinho has won the League in his second season for every side he has managed and the direction which he has taken United in during his reign so far suggests that he is well on course to continue that trend.

In his attempt to do so, his experience of the Premier League may be the telling factor. Whereas Guardiola is a purist, Mourinho is a pragmatist, willing to take a draw if it suits the team in the long run.

When squeaky bum time arrives, that pragmatism may just decide the title.

 

Verdict

Ultimately, both City and United have squads capable of winning the League.

In terms of sheer quality Manchester City’s squad just shades it, but when pitted against each other the difference in the strengths of the first 11s is almost negligible. Therefore it is much more likely that injuries will impact which side comes out of top.

Whereas City will be hoping their defensive players stay fit, the key for United is keeping their attacking players healthy, particularly Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

Nonetheless, the most likely factor to decide which half of Manchester wins the title is the managers and in this respect, Mourinho just about has it.

Despite both having stellar records across multiple Leagues, it is Mourinho’s experience of the Premier League and his pragmatism which sets him slightly ahead of his Spanish counterpart. As such, this year the title is United’s, unless it’s Chelsea’s.

 

Written by Scott Pope

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