For there to be a title race in the Premier League this year, Manchester United will probably need a win in this weekend’s Manchester Derby. United sit already eight points behind Manchester City and are huge underdogs for the title. That underdog status is reinforced by a quick look at the underlying numbers. City have the league’s best expected goals difference at plus-27, while United’s plus-8 reflects a season in which results have outstripped the underlying play. It appears several things must go right if the Red Devils if they are to get the win.
1) More Spectacular Goalkeeping
In United’s 3-1 win over Arsenal at the weekend, it was goalkeeper David De Gea and his incredible 14 saves that were most responsible for preserving the result. In general, this has been the story of United’s season. Jose Mourinho sides are expected to exert defensive control, and United’s nine goals conceded suggest he has the defense clicking, but the indicators do not all line up. The Red Devils’ 182 shots conceded are by a good margin the most of the any of the big six teams and more than twice as many as Man City. The performance rankings from the Arsenal match tell a familiar story—defenders Chris Smalling, Victor Lindelof, and Marcos Rojo produced almost no defensive value, and it was the work of De Gea that prevented a flurry of Arsenal goals.
2) New Sources of Ball Progression
Paul Pogba has been United’s best progressive passer from midfield on the season. His red card against Arsenal means United will need to find another solution. Nemanja Matic and Marouane Fellaini can add defensive strength to midfield, and Fellaini is dangerous in the penalty area, but over the season on a per-minute basis, Pogba has produced more attacking value than Matic and Fellaini combined.
While United has no like-for-like replacement for their record signing, the tactical battle could provide Mourinho with a solution. Manchester City are unlikely to concede space or possession, meaning that the key ball progression United will be looking for should come on the counter rather than from buildup. It may be possible against City to replace Pogba’s ball progression without adding a passing midfielder. Both Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial have provided exceptional value with their passing in recent weeks, and with City streaming numbers forward, the options should exist for a quick out ball to an attacker like Lingard or Martial.
3) Maybe Manchester City Get Tired
There is no doubt that Pep Guardiola will have his side pushing forward in attack. In the last few matches, however, this attack has looked somewhat more manageable than usual. It took a last-minute winner from Raheem Sterling to sink Southampton, and City were held to just 0.1 expected goals in the first half against West Ham. Guardiola has done little to rotate his key attackers this season, with Kevin De Bruyne starting all but one match between Premier League and Champions League, and David Silva missing the XI only four times. So far this lack of rotation has not cost City any important points. United, counting on more exceptional goalkeeping and a plan b attacking strategy, will certainly need some good fortune. If City come out of the gate looking tired from these early season exertions, it would give United the opportunity they need.