April 19, 2021

Man Utd

News

Manchester United’s big game DNA has been tarnished by Pep Guardiola

4 min read

Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has a huge dilemma as he heads into the derby against Manchester City on Sunday.

The Reds boss has a decent record against their oldest enemy, winning three of the six encounters since his appointment in 2018.

But this weekend’s encounter at the Etihad Stadium poses a different challenge – and one which will test his constant mantra that he is trying to develop a team which has “United DNA”.

That is a phrase which recounts Sir Matt Busby ’s philosophy that his teams should entertain the thousands of Trafford Park workers who would escape from the grim reality of their everyday lives to live a fantasy every Saturday afternoon.

Successive United bosses fed off that idea, with Tommy Docherty and Ron Atkinson producing sides that played on the front foot, always threatening to score more than the opposition.

And Sir Alex Ferguson took it to an extreme, forging successive sides which not only heeded the Stretford End’s insistent chant of “Attack! Attack! Attack!” but won bundles of trophies as well.

But even Fergie was cowed by the rising power of the “noisy neighbours”, and the team he picked when the two clubs met in the fateful derby of April 2012, spoke of a manager who was more afraid of losing than he was intent on winning.

He put out a cautious, solid team – understandable in pragmatic terms, as a draw would have left United in the driving seat with two more games to go in a tense title race.

But it gave the lie to the notion that United would attack their way out of any situation, and handed the mantle of being Manchester’s entertainers over to City.

Blues fans have also demanded attacking football down the years, and all of their desires have come to glorious fruition in the last eight years.



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Since Fergie retired, United have gone into their shell in derbies, and never more so under Solskjaer.

United teams facing City, even at Old Trafford, have approached the game as if they were Burnley or Sheffield United – teams that recognise their natural inferiority, and realise that their only chance of a positive result is to defend in depth and seek to punish the opposition on the break.

It has worked for him, not least last season when the Reds’ pace up front brutally exposed City’s defensive issues.

In this season’s Old Trafford derby, Pep Guardiola called his bluff.

Solskjaer set up to frustrate, deploying both Fred and Scott McTominay as holding players, but Guardiola, unusually, countered by putting both Fernandinho and Rodri in his team.

Some United fans claimed a moral victory, proclaiming that United’s three wins out of four derby encounters in the previous campaign had put Guardiola’s City in their box – they were scared of United, they crowed.

But the more pragmatic City still should have won it. They edged the possession stats and had the game’s outstanding chance, wasted by Riyad Mahrez.

Since then, City have ironed out their issues and returned to being the smooth, systematic winning machine that has crushed all opposition, playing games almost solely in the opposition half.



Bruno Fernandes battles Kevin De Bruyne

Guardiola is unlikely to change that, and with his players in supreme form, they will aim to wrap their coils around United and squeeze the life out of them, like a big Blue boa constrictor.

But United need a win if they harbour serious ambitions of holding onto City’s coat-tails and keeping them honest in the title race.

Guardiola could simply tell his team to keep the ball in the knowledge that – other than spoiling their attempt on the European record for consecutive wins – a draw would be perfectly acceptable.

Solskjaer can sit in and lose, as West Ham and Wolves have already done in the last week, or he can be true to his “United DNA” and go out to win.

If he does that, and City are on top of their game, the Reds could be in for a battering.

Derby games rarely go with form – City always had a knack of upsetting the odds in the Noughties, when United inhabited a different football planet, and now the Blues are in the ascendancy it is United who have to be satisfied with winning a derby or two every season.

It will be fascinating to see how the two managers approach it.

Will Guardiola sit on his team’s big lead at the top of the table, and make it plain that United will have to emerge from their shell in order to gain the three points they desperately need?

And will Solskjaer and his team come out fighting, in the Busby and Fergie manner, or will they be just another Burnley, frightened and defensive?

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