A chat with fellow SB Nation blog The Busby Babe for more info on our rivals.
B&B: United are off to another trademark, strong start in the Premier League. The early goings are now over, and there are still plenty of games left to play, but do you think this year's team, in comparison to last year, has the mental strength to see the campaign out?
TBB: Time will tell, I suppose. I don't think I can really offer a strong opinion in this regard because I'm not really privy to the happenings in the dressing room. There's not an obvious general that visibly projects a fiery nature like a Roy Keane or a Bryan Robson but there certainly are some experienced players -- such as Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra, and Darren Fletcher to name a few -- who have been through the battles and won a plethora of trophies. The hope is, of course, that they can guide the younger players. Losing an eight point lead late last season certainly brings about concerns so obviously, if that was due to some sort of lack of mental fortitude, hopefully that situation is rectified. If I had to guess though, I'd say there are other worries that are more pressing.
B&B: While the attack has been good, United's defense has struggled a bit this year and have given up 21 goals already thus far. Do you think SAF will make any transfers in January to help the defense, or should Nemanja Vidic's eventual return sort out the issues?
TBB: I think the larger issue, in regards to United's defending woes, has to do more with a systemic nature than it does with individuals. For the past 16 months or so, Sir Alex has had difficulties finding the proper balance between attacking ambition and dutiful defending. I think this also largely explains United's unconvincing European form during this time frame. Last season, prior to the 1-6 derby nightmare (from our perspective) at Old Trafford, the team was flying and scoring goals for fun. If one dug deeper at that time, though, they would have noticed United were conceding an alarming number of shots against them. City ruthlessly exposed the gaps in United's vulnerable shape. After the derby at Old Trafford, four of the next five matches were drab 1-0 results after Fergie tightened the team's shape -- this came, though, at the expense of the attack. United still haven't found the right balance and I think that helps explain the plethora of goals scored and goals conceded this season.
There are some individual concerns. I'm not as worried about the full-backs as some United fans are but there are some concerns with the central-defenders. Fitness has been a massive issue and I think a lack of cohesion and a run of regular games has contributed, at times, to the poor form of some of the defenders. My biggest concern, in regards to the shape issue I discussed, is that both Ferdinand and Vidic can't play higher up the pitch in order to compact the playing space because both are vulnerable on the turn. It's also terrifying watching them defend in space, particularly when the opposition counterattacks. But those two veterans are our best central-defenders in a positional and organizational sense so it's hard to drop them if they're fit -- those are arguably the most important aspects of defending. I don't think purchasing a defender in January is necessary if the injury situation improves.
B&B: How has Robin Van Persie settled into the squad? Is he forming a good tactical partnership with Wayne Rooney, goal scoring aside?
TBB: Robin van Persie has settled in beautifully. Full disclosure though: I wasn't thrilled by the RvP signing when it happened nor was I necessarily against. Of course, I was excited that we had signed a world-class striker and perhaps at the expense of City too. I wondered, though, was it a luxury purchase and did it come at the expense of another need (e.g. a combative central-midfielder that Yaya Toure can't run over like roadkill) and would it hinder the development of Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez? I also wondered if Wayne Rooney -- who is prone to fluctuation, both mentally and in his playing form -- might feel threatened as the unquestionable alpha dog in the squad. RvP has put all of my concerns to rest.
I actually think one reason Rooney is so fond of RvP is because there is now less pressure on him. The Englishman has relished having more of a creative and defending responsibility while RvP has taken some of the goal-scoring burden. The two are developing a fine understanding and they've proven right those who thought the two had complimentary skill-sets. Their movement is tremendous and Rooney's subtle flick for RvP's goal last weekend at Reading is evidence of their brilliance and understanding when working together. On a personal level, it's a treat to watch RvP ply his trade on a weekly basis.
B&B: Form and injury situation at United currently? Do you see any changes in personnel for the derby?
TBB: This is a good question and I wish I could provide an answer of quality to match it. I can't though. Trying to predict Fergie's XI is generally a futile exercise and it is even more so for the derby. It was quite a surprise last season, during the title-decider at the Etihad, when the gaffer selected a rusty Park Ji-sung, an unconvincing Ryan Giggs, and a midfield duo -- Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes -- that had been prone in the past to being overrun by City.
Injury wise, the loss of Anderson is a massive blow because he had been in fine form as of late and he also provides the United midfield a physicality and directness that no one else in the squad can offer. Tom Cleverley is the only other mobile midfielder at the moment so his injury at the midweek is a frustrating loss as well. Don't be surprised to see Rooney in midfield alongside Carrick and Fletcher (the Scotsman is not the mobile player that he once was -- his recent illness has been devastating) because he may be asked to provide some necessary vitality in the engine room.
Perhaps the biggest selection dilemma is whether to start David de Gea or Anders Lindegaard in goal. Sir Alex's rotation of goalkeepers has been maddening and most United fans don't understand why the clearly superior de Gea isn't the established No.1. The Spaniard, though, has only featured once in the past month due to recent dental surgery so his sharpness may be a concern if he's selected.
The wide areas are a big concern too, especially when one considers how dependent United typically are on their wingers. Ashley Young is the only fit natural winger. Rooney has featured twice on the right in the past week, perhaps in anticipation of the derby. As previously mentioned though, he may be needed in midfield with the injuries to Ando and Cleverley. Fergie has much to ponder ahead of Sunday.
B&B: Prediction for Sunday? Which positional battles do you think will be the most important, and do you see and mis-matches on the pitch?
TBB: Because it's so difficult to accurately guess starting XI's and tactical approaches, I tend to shy away from prediction game. My gut instinct tells me though that City might continue their recent success though.
The midfield battle is terrifying to think about from a United perspective. If Fergie decides to have a go and play an open game, this is where United might get overrun and where Yaya Toure likely bosses the match. Theoretically, it might not be a bad idea for United to take a reactive approach -- defend narrowly and in a compact shape so that City is forced wide of the box, clear crosses effectively (this is sort of the Everton approach in recent years against City), and then look for an outlet out wide to a winger or through Rooney floating in the space between City's defensive and midfield lines so that a quick transition can be launched. Ironically though, United played better in the 1-6 last season when they had a go in comparison to when they took a conservative approach in the 0-1 defeat.
Set-pieces deserve a mention too since both sides are good at scoring from them while also being haplessly vulnerable in conceding from them. If one side can out execute the other in this regard, it might be enough to swing the match.