Friday 11 December 2020

Fernandes and Fred key to victory in 183rd Manchester derby

The stage is set, the curtain is raised and the eyes of the world will home in on Manchester as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Pep Guardiola lock horns again.

Solskjaer has been a man under seemingly incessant pressure but yet United go into the 183rd all-Manchester meeting a point and a place ahead of the men from across the city, by hook or by crook.
Although Manchester City's golden era is perhaps on the wane, there can be no denying the galaxy of stars at the Catalan's disposal. Any side with Kevin de Bruyne and Sergio Aguero in will be dangerous, and - although their start to the season has been far from vintage - there have been signs in recent weeks that City's slickers are ominously starting to click into gear.

But Solskaer knows how to get one over on his more illustrious counterpart. Last term, the affable and erudite Norwegian led United to a derby double over City for the first time in a decade, with a League Cup semi-final second leg win thrown in for good measure (although United missed out on a place in the final on a 2-3 aggregate). That ensured Solskjaer became only the second manager to beat Guardiola three times in a single season - Jurgen Klopp is the other man to do so. So for all his critics, it would be churlish to count out Solskjaer's United completely. After all, this team have a happy knack of rising to the big occasion. The bigger the opposition, the better we often seem to play. 

To secure victory in the first ever derby to be played without fans, you feel two men will be key for United. 
Midfield is often where matches are won and lost, and this one looks to be no exception. Whilst City possess probably the best pound-for-pound player on the planet in Kevin de Bruyne, the City schemer has had a disappointing season by his own metronomic standards. Perhaps he's suffering the effects of his missing link with the departed David Silva, or maybe the lack of preparation and pre-season has had an impact. It could be something else entirely. Either way, although he is too good to simply ignore, de Bruyne perhaps does not carry the same fear factor that saw him voted PFA, Premier League and City Player of the Season in 2019-20. 
Individual battles can often be as gripping as the main event and the undercard is just as compelling as the heavyweight fight on this occasion. Despite his aforementioned struggles, De Bruyne is still widely considered as the best pound-for-pound playmaker in world football. You have to be a very special talent indeed to put him in the shade. Enter, Bruno Fernandes. The impact of United's talismanic, match-winning figurehead needs no embellishment but the Portuguese has had a stellar campaign so far. The midfield maestros go head-to-head at Old Trafford on Saturday at teatime, with the pair holding the key to victory for their respective sides. 

We saw in the last fixture between these two what Fernandes offers: his quick-thinking impudence caught City napping as he flicked a set-piece over the wall and set up Anthony Martial to score. 
Fernandes has played 53 minutes more than De Bruyne, and his crucial influence was in evidence again as he transformed the Reds from the bench against West Ham last time out. His mere presence transforms the entire dynamic of the side and his leadership stands out in a side lacking exactly that. It is both credit to Fernandes but also damning for United, how he has quickly become our most important player. Fernandes has rapidly become a key tactical cog for Solskjaer, efficiently moving the team up the pitch when he's on the ball, coupled with an instinctive knowledge of when to press and where and when to sit in when out of possession. Manchester City are likely to monopolise possession and push us back, so Fernandes may have to be patient and look to push United high up the pitch in transition. He will, once again, be pivotal. 

Fernandes may be mocked as a penalty merchant, but yet four of his seven league strikes have come from open play, with only from the spot. In contrast, both of De Bruyne's goals in 2020-21 have been from 12 yards. Now who's the spot-kick specialist...

Solskjaer seems likely to go with one of two formations - his tried and tested 4-2-3-1 raison d'etre, or the three-at-the-back that has served him so well in games such as this. Whichever of these two probable shapes he uses, Fred is set to come back into the fold. Left out at West Ham and suspended against Leipzig, the Brazilian is a player whose importance becomes clear only in absentia. Fred has been at his best when in a double pivot, alongside Scott McTominay, at the base of midfield. His combative, naturally feisty nature is made for games like the derby, and he ran the show in both games against Pep's slickers last term, turning the tables with a magnificent performance of pressing, power and perseverance. City will go through his area of the pitch, so Fred will be relied upon to break up play, move the ball on and link the play with his potent range of passing. He provides a consistent central option during build up phases, and continually offers support as a recycle point when the ball is advanced further forward, as it inevitably will be. 
City are likely to go with Gabriel Jesus in attack and will attempt to pass us to death, so Solskjaer will look to the little Brazilian to shut down the channels and stop the supply line to his compatriot. In both a 4-2-3-1 or a 3-4-1-2, Fred's role is to both support those around him, to start attacks from deep but also to advance further forwards. He was sorely missed in Germany, and in east London to a lesser extent, but his selection here is surely a no brainer. 

De Bruyne vs Fernandes, Rodri vs Fred, Aaron Wan - Bissaka renewing his personal duel with Raheem Sterling... United vs City, Red against Blue, Solskjaer vs Guardiola. Bring.It.On!

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