It’s probably just as well the Manchester derby is happening so early in the season. There’s only so much fevered anticipation, so much guarded politeness, so many unconvincing insistences that they get along fine a league can take. Certainly, there’s only so often that it can be pointed out that beating Bournemouth, Southampton and Hull or Sunderland, Stoke and West Ham is all very well but the real test will come in the derby.
And it’s just as well for narrative purposes – and, really, what else matters in the supercharged soap opera of the modern Premier League? – that the first meeting of José Mourinho and Pep Guardiola since they left Spain should happen in Manchester rather than Beijing, that the first clash scheduled for pre-season should leave no trace beyond an abandoned game and the strange bickering over the size and temperature of the press conference room. If their rivalry is to be apocalyptic, it’s fitting that their first crossing of Mancunian swords should happen in Manchester and should be meaningful.
For Mourinho and Guardiola, the season has begun relatively sedately, the only real hint of controversy coming in their decisions that, respectively, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Joe Hart have no place in their sides. Both have been relatively consistent with selection. Neither has done anything extreme. The sense has been of a mild clearing of throats, a gentle warming up, a reluctance to show too much of a hand too soon.
Mourinho has selected the same lineup for each game with only one exception, Paul Pogba coming in for Ander Herrera in the deep-lying midfield role alongside Marouane Fellaini. The shape has remained 4-2-3-1 but this is the big test of Mourinho’s faith in Wayne Rooney. So far, he has insisted the England captain will not be used in midfield but it may be he decides he needs a third central midfielder.
Mourinho’s first two meetings with Guardiola came in the Champions League semi-final in 2010, he was at Internazionale and Guardiola was at Barça. In both legs, Mourinho played a 4-2-3-1, Inter winning 3-1 in Milan, and then losing 1-0 at the Camp Nou having had Thiago Motta sent off in the first half and effectively adopting a 4-1-4 formation.
Mourinho had attacked in the first leg, emboldened by the fact Barça had travelled to Milan by bus because of the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull. When he tried to press high with a 4-2-3-1 in his first clásico, though, his new Real Madrid side was picked apart, hammered 5-0 by Barça. It was then that he switched to a 4-3-3, his trivote of holding midfielders designed to protect the back four and prevent Barça hitting their passing rhythms. The result was that poisonous series of games when they met four times in 17 days in the spring of 2011. Madrid won the Copa del Rey final, drew in the league game and lost the first leg of the Champions League semi-final 2-0 before reverting to 4-2-3-1 to try, unsuccessfully, to salvage the second.
But thereafter, Mourinho played the trivote only once against Guardiola: five games using it yielded a win, two draws and two defeats; while nine games with a 4-2-3-1 have brought two wins, four draws and three defeats. It appears the decision to switch to 4-3-3 was a short-term measure brought about by his desire, after the 5-0 defeat, to avoid such a humiliation again.
On Saturday there is perhaps a danger of United being overrun at the back of midfield by Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva but City, so far this season, have not looked the sort of remorseless passing side to force Mourinho into an approach of radical non-possession, which might mean leaving out Rooney for Herrera or Morgan Schneiderlin. There will, it seems likely, be at least some attempt from United to play proactively; this will probably not be Mourinho at his most risk averse, when his team effectively ignore the ball, maintain their shape and wait to pounce on a mistake.
Guardiola’s approach so far has been chiefly notable for the 3-2-2-3 formation his side seem to take up when in possession, the M shape at the back being formed either by the full-backs tucking into midfield and Fernandinho dropping between the centre-backs or by John Stones stepping up from the back alongside Fernandinho. That Guardiola has reportedly stopped the club negotiating new contracts for Bacary Sagna, Gaël Clichy and Pablo Zabaleta suggests he is not entirely happy with their contributions.
Assuming he follows the same pattern – and the beauty with Guardiola is that he may have something entirely different in mind – it will presumably be Stones stepping up, leaving the full-backs to guard against Juan Mata and Anthony Martial. Then again, given Mata’s lack of pace and the fact Martial has been slightly short of top form this season, he could take the risk of having the full-backs tuck into midfield, which would have the bonus of getting two men around Zlatan Ibrahimovic – a player with whom he, of course, has a difficult history. And there’s the issue of Ilkay Gündogan, who is now fit, if not match-fit, and could either replace Fernandinho or come in for a more naturally attacking player to strengthen the back of midfeld.
The other major issue is who Guardiola plays at centre-forward in the absence of the suspended Sergio Agüero. Kelechi Iheanacho is the nearest option to a straight swap but Guardiola has plenty of history using a false nine. Raheem Sterling could perhaps move into the middle, which would mean either Leroy Sané, if he is fit, or Jesús Navas, coming in on the flank.
If both managers go in as they have until now, it will be United’s 4-2-3-1 against 4‑1‑4‑1, two shapes that match up straightforwardly for marking purposes: United have an extra holding midfielder who, while testing Pogba’s defensive discipline, can counter City’s additional creative midfielder. But that’s a big if: positions are not yet entrenched and, from a tactical point of view, the real excitement is that either coach is capable of making a significant change.