- Two 3-0-0 teams. Mourinho vs. Guardiola. Ibrahimovic vs. Guardiola. City vs. United. This Manchester derby may be the most anticipated match in Premier League history.
And to think we used to get excited about whether Wayne Bridge would shake John Terry’s hand.
Saturday’s Manchester derby (7:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) at Old Trafford might be the most anticipated match in English Premier League history. It's not just a derby, not just a meeting of probably the two best squads in the country, but it's Jose Mourinho against Pep Guardiola–and a little bit of Zlatan Ibrahimovic too.
This is a day when the game of football and the soap opera of football come together, a clash of two great clubs, two great managers and an awful lot of questions.
There is one clash missing, though. There will be no battle of the strikers, no face off between Ibrahimovic and Sergio Aguero. Everybody in both squads is either fit or nearly fit, but Aguero will be missing as he serves the first of a three-game suspension imposed for his elbow on West Ham’s Winston Reid in the last league game before the international break.
There are tactical conundrums aplenty, but the most pressing of them is a simple matter of personnel. With Aguero absent, who plays up front for City? Until Gabriel Jesus arrives in January, and with Wilfried Bony sold to Stoke City, the only other orthodox center forward in the squad is Kelechi Iheanacho. The Nigerian 19-year-old impressed last season, scoring eight Premier League goals despite being largely restricted to appearances from the bench, but making his first start of the season in the derby would be an extraordinary responsibility for one so inexperienced.
The other option is to go with a false nine, as Guardiola so often has in the past. David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne have both occupied the role before, but the most likely candidate is Raheem Sterling, even if his falseness is likely to manifest in movement out to the flank rather than back into midfield. If he is used centrally, it means the Silva-De Bruyne axis, playing as “free eights” at the front of the midfield is kept in tact, but it does leave a question of who operates on the right, assuming Nolito is retained on the left. Jesus Navas has already played there this season, but if Leroy Sane is fully fit, there may be a temptation to give him his debut.
At the other end of the pitch, Guardiola’s issues are threefold. Does he give Claudio Bravo his debut in goal, even though he will have trained with his new colleagues for only three days? Does he field Ilkay Gundogan for his first start for the club now that he is recovered from his knee injury–and, if he does, who does he replace? And does Guardiola trust the two Argentina players, Nicolas Otamendi and Pablo Zabaleta, who were away playing in World Cup qualifiers and returned to training only on Thursday?
But there is always the possibility Guardiola does something unexpected. His capacity to devise a specific plan for a specific game is a major part of his genius. Trying to guess what it may entail is all but impossible, but there could be a case for including both Fernandinho and Gundogan.
Assuming there is no switch to a back three, which, given Ibrahimovic’s form and aerial prowess would be an enormous gamble, could there be a case for playing without a center forward at all, with Sterling and Nolito attacking the box from wide? Or perhaps Guardiola might risk matching the two fullbacks against Juan Mata and Anthony Martial, using John Stones against Ibrahimovic with Fernandinho dropping back to cover. It would mean Sterling and Nolito (if they play wide) operating as quasi-wingbacks, but it would be a way of exerting pressure on the back of the United midfield, which is where they are least settled.
That’s assuming United plays a 4-2-3-1, which it may not. On five of the 12 occasions when Mourinho faced Guardiola in Spain, he played a 4-3-3, his “trivote” with three holding midfielders. City probably isn't yet slick enough to warrant such an approach, but it could be that Mourinho nonetheless prefers the insurance of an additional player in the center. Morgan Schneiderlin could come in, freeing up Paul Pogba, which would mean either that Wayne Rooney misses out or that he operates on the right in place of Juan Mata.
Tactics, of course, are only part of it. There are personal antipathies and subplots everywhere, not just between the two managers. Most significant, perhaps, is that between Ibrahimovic and Guardiola. The striker has clearly never quite forgiven Guardiola for the way he treated him during his spell at Barcelona.
“As a coach he was fantastic,” Ibrahimovic said in an interview with CNN last year. “As a person I’ve no comments about that, that’s something else. He’s not a man, there’s nothing more to say.” (Also last July, Ibrahimovic was asked to play word association in an interview with SI. He gave Mourinho "power." Pep? "Good coach. Bad person.")
And that’s why Saturday’s encounter is so fascinating. It’s a tactical battle and a personal battle that also happens to be one of England’s biggest derbies. The plot lines are converging, and it could be apocalyptic.