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Three tactical reasons why Man City could thrash Man Utd

An heroic victory in Turin on Wednesday night, equals part archetypal Jose Mourinho resilience and traditional Manchester United ruthlessness, has provided the red half of the city with a major psychological boost ahead of this Sunday's Manchester derby. All of a sudden United have the confidence, and perhaps even the tactical template, to put a dent in Pep Guardiola's near-perfect start to the 2018/19 season.

But probably not. Although the gravitas of United's defeat of Juventus should not be downplayed, it is important to note that Mourinho's cautious approach allowed the hosts to hit the post and the bar before eventually taking the lead, as well as miss a couple of very good chances with the score at 1-0. From a Manchester City perspective, little has changed: this is a mismatch of talent and tactics that could lead to a damaging defeat for Mourinho's side.

Here are three reasons why City could win by a big margin at the Etihad:

1) Mourinho's low block is the wrong way to approach Man City games

City's opponents are increasingly realising that an ultra-defensive approach simply doesn't work; to be in with the slightest chance, managers must press higher and show bravery in the face of those flitting City midfielders. Confrontational, fearless tactics are the only way to disrupt their rhythm, because Guardiola's tactics are so perfectly organised as to render a low block ineffective.

First and foremost, it's a psychological issue. As was evident in recent meek first half performances against Bournemouth and Juventus (at Old Trafford), United's strategy to stand off and only apply pressure to the ball 40 yards from goal (a unique strategy among the elite clubs) emboldens their opponents. Cageyness and a sense of inferiority inevitably takes hold of the United players, and when travelling to the Etihad this can only mean City will win the mental battle. The 50-50s will fall in their favour and the half-chances will be put away.

But to approach City with a defensive mindset is also a tactical error. The rigidity of United's shape means quick, incisive movement from attackers can catch them flat-footed; it is difficult to keep up with a high-tempo opponent when your basic position is one of stasis. Bournemouth, playing with a freedom and confidence grounded in Eddie Howe's complex pass-and-move patterns, showed this during a 45 minutes in which the hosts should have been at least 3-0 up. This game is a more accurate indicator of how City versus United will go than Wednesday's Champions League game.

Guardiola's team need to be pushed back, their false-eights suffocated by pressing in the spaces between them and the City defenders. To invite pressure is to play into Guardiola's hands, allowing his side to patiently go about their business and grind you into submission.

2) City's possession dominance will help expose a mismatch on the flanks

Assuming, then, that City will be tasked with breaking through United's brick wall, the most likely source of City goals is the flanks. City love to rotate the ball in central areas, sucking the opposition defence inwards, and at just the right moment play a through ball between the full-back and centre-back for an under-lapping winger. The archetypal City goal is a slide pass into the channel, followed by a cut back for a tap-in at the far post.

United will no doubt defend considerably better than Southampton last weekend, or Shakhtar Donetsk in midweek, but nevertheless City's record of scoring 12 goals in four days shows their wide men are full of confidence. In both matches the full-backs were overwhelmed by those clever runs of Leroy Sane, Riyad Mahrez, and Raheem Sterling, all of whom took advantage of the slightest gap or the smallest moment switching off. You need two or three players on the flanks to stop City's brilliant distribution to the byline.

Mourinho doesn't have the players to do this for a whole 90 minutes. Ashley Young is currently playing out of position at right-back, explaining why he was so easily beaten by the pace of Ryan Fraser and through balls of Charlie Daniels last weekend. On the other flank, Luke Shaw is regularly caught ball-watching; his positional play isn't good enough, which should ensure Sterling can lose his marker.

3) Bernardo Silva can take advantage of Nemanja Matic's dreadful form

Of course, for City to move the ball fluildly in midfield and then find those through balls into the channels, they'll first need to win their battles in the centre of the park. Bernardo Silva has been outstanding in Kevin de Bruyne's absence, piercing static midfield lines with his weaving dribbles and linking superbly with David Silva.

Mourinho may choose to start Marouane Fellaini alongside Nemanja Matic in a midfield three, but even with these numbers there is a problem. Matic looks like a shadow of his former self this season, drifting aimlessly to leave big spaces for opposition playmakers; David Brooks had the freedom of the Vitality Stadium for the first half last weekend. One half is all the Silvas will need to put this match to bed.

If that wasn't bad enough, Matic is also guilty of being frequently caught in possession this season. United will be playing a direct game to avoid City's high press, but there will still be occasions when Matic needs to manoeuvre away from onrushing players in his own half. It is easy to envisage a City player nicking the ball from the Serbia international.

A famous win at Juventus might indeed be a turning point for United under Mourinho, but even taking their midweek performance into account Man City are heavy favourites to win on Sunday, quite possibly by a significant margin.

Alex Keble
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Alex Keble

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