There has been a wonderfully anarchic feel to the start of the Premier League season. The three richest teams have all changed their managers and have all dropped five points from four games, while the other three in a putative top six have all won three games to maintain at least a little longer the hope that we might have a genuine six-way title scrap on our hands, a saloon-bar free-for-all that hasn’t been experienced in English football for over four decades.
At the same time, there has been a sudden and unexpected shortage of goals: just 1.95 per game so far this season, as opposed to 2.80 over the whole of last season, 2.79 the season before and 2.77 in 2009-10, or as opposed to 3.28 in Germany so far this season, 3.05 in Spain and 3.03 in Italy.
The sense of competitiveness and the lack of goals are not unrelated. This was a close-season of unprecedented flux: not just in terms of managerial changes but also player movement. Just about every side is still settling down, trying to work out their attacking patterns, and that makes predicting the outcomes of games far more difficult than usual. Sunday’s Manchester derby comes shrouded in mystery – as to the outcome, if not necessarily how the sides will set up.
Manchester City seemed to have had the perfect close season. It offloaded a number of players and brought in four signings early. There was a clear pattern and a clear plan that was apparent in the pre-season friendlies, and it came as no surprise when it began the season with a thoroughly emphatic 4-0 victory over Newcastle. This, it seemed, was a team with great balance and depth: there was muscle in Edin Dzeko (or Alvaro Negredo), guile in Sergio Aguero (or Stevan Jovetic), creative intelligence in David Silva (or Samir Nasri) and pace in Jesus Navas. There may have been doubts over the effectiveness of the holding midfield pair of Yaya Toure and Fernandinho when it came to ball-winning, but there was Javi Garcia waiting on the sidelines to add bite if needed.
But then Vincent Kompany suffered a groin injury and all those plans fell apart. With Matija Nastasic unfit for the first couple of weeks and Micah Richards injured, City ended up having to use Javi Garcia as a makeshift center-back. With Joe Hart suffering a crisis of confidence, the result was a shambolic defensive display in the 3-2 defeat at Cardiff City. Manuel Pellegrini’s side wasn’t much more impressive in beating Hull 2-0, at which came a change of policy and retrenchment.
At Stoke, the defensive line dropped deeper, the fullbacks didn’t push on as much and the overall approach was far more cautious. The result was a dour, perhaps even fortuitous goalless draw. It was a similar story against Viktoria Plzen in the Champions League on Tuesday: ensuring the clean sheet before cutting loose with three second-half goals. Kompany is now back, which adds a sense of security, although it’s probable that David Silva will again miss out on Sunday, his place taken by Nasri.
Still, it’s likely City will restrict its pressing game, which places greater pressure on the Toure-Fernandinho pairing. The Brazilian is a deeper-lying player but neither is a natural anchor; both like to step forwards from the back. Against Newcastle, when they were under little pressure, they got the balance right, one sitting as the other surged and vice versa, but with a rejuvenated Wayne Rooney operating in their zone, that relationship will be placed under great strain.
Manchester City has defeated rival Manchester United two of their last three meetings (Photo: WhoScored.com).
That said, it was an axiom of Sir Alex Ferguson throughout his final years as United’s manager that in the modern game there is no need for a true holder – although it was always assumed he was at least in part offering excuses for his own side’s lack of a tackler. Like City, Manchester United prefer dynamism in central areas and the signing of Marouane Fellaini on deadline day certainly gives it greater energy than it had before. The Belgian’s partnership with Michael Carrick is young and on the evidence of Tuesday’s 4-2 victory over Bayer Leverkusen far from polished. Like Rooney, Aguero will look at the opposing midfield pairing and imagine he will find plenty of pockets of space.
The other key issue is the pace of Navas and which player Moyes will deploy on the left side of midfield to try to negate him. The option could be to try to drive Navas back, forcing him to defend by having Patrice Evra attack, presumably then linking up with Danny Welbeck. More likely, though, is that Evra will sit deep, denying Navas space behind him to attack, which leaves Welbeck – or perhaps Nani – to try to force Pablo Zabaleta back while offering a creative option wide. Certainly the other option, using Rooney wide and playing an additional midfielder, seems not to be one Moyes would consider.
This, really, is a matchup between two similar teams, playing similar shapes, each with question marks over their central midfield. And like so much in this first month of the Premier League season, it looks fascinatingly unpredictable.