March was a different time, both in football and in wider society. It was that long ago that the two Manchester clubs faced each other, and the last time fans pushed through the turnstiles at Old Trafford. The world has changed a lot since goals from Anthony Martial and Scott McTominay gave Manchester United a 2-0 win over Manchester City, but the landscape for these two teams is pretty much the same now as it was nine months ago.
City and United have spent 2020 scrambling for consistent form with both rivals off the pace at the top of the Premier League table. The difference back in March was primarily Bruno Fernandes, the Portuguese midfielder who electrified Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side following his signing in January. He is still the charge giving Manchester United life.
Kevin de Bruyne, on the other hand, was notable in his absence in City’s last visit to Old Trafford. Pep Guardiola is just as dependent on de Bruyne as Solskjaer is on Fernandes, with both players creator in-chief for their respective teams. There are, however, stark differences in the way the pair create chances and in the roles they play.
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While de Bruyne is a controlling influence in the centre of the pitch for City, Fernandes brings an element of chaos to United’s attacking play. In many ways, these two players epitomise the character of the teams they play for. On the flip side, they also demonstrate what City and United are both lacking.
Guardiola could use a Fernandes figure to prevent his side from being so predictable in the final third. Manchester City are still better at keeping the ball than any other Premier League team, averaging a league-high possession share average of 60.3% this season, but this hasn’t translated into firepower in front of goal.
Aston Villa, Southampton and West Ham have all scored more league goals than City this season. Injuries to Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus have undoubtedly hindered Guardiola’s side, but there is still a stagnation to their attacking play. This was clear in the way Tottenham Hotspur were able to shackle City despite Jose Mourinho’s team only claiming 34% of possession.
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Of course, David Silva performed something close to the same role as Fernandes for City before leaving the Etihad Stadium at the end of the 2019/20 season. No direct replacement was signed for Silva, although Phil Foden has continued his development having served as the Spaniard’s understudy.
Conversely, de Bruyne is the sort of player Manchester United need. On the break, there is no better team in the English game right now. Fernandes has only added to their threat on the counter attack, but against low defensive blocks, the likes of which United frequently face in the Premier League, they struggle to break through.
This is where de Bruyne is at his best, with the Belgian capable of seeing angles nobody else can. He still requires movement in front of him to play through opposition teams, which is something City are struggling to give de Bruyne this season, but as a midfield pace-setter and pass-master the 29-year-old’s quality is unparalleled.
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It’s possible Donny van de Beek could grow into this figure for Solskjaer, but the Norwegian seems suspicious of the summer signing, only handing him his first Premier League start away to Southampton at the end of November. The other problem for Solskjaer is he doesn’t have the one-man defensive anchor Guardiola has in Fernandinho. While City could feasibly de Bruyne and Fernandes in the one team, Solskjaer would struggle to do the same, as he currently does with Fernandes and Van de Beek.
Guardiola and Solskjaer have enough experience at the top level to know what their respective teams are missing. So far this season, though, they have shown little to suggest they have a plan to address flaws. When City and United identify each others’ danger-men on Saturday, they will see what they lack.
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