Since the turn of the century, the English Premier League has largely been dominated by the two giants in the north – and we’re not talking about Liverpool.
Manchester, red or blue, have been responsible for 11 title wins since the beginning of the 2000/01 season – more than any other city in the country. Both clubs have dominant dominant eras, with Sir Alex Ferguson leading the charge between 2006-2009, winning three Premier League titles in a row and adding in a Champions League triumph for Manchester United. The Citizens’ dominant era was much more recently though, when Pep Guardiola led his side to back-to-back Premier League titles – smashing the 100pts barrier in the process.
Both sides are deemed as one of the greatest the Premier League has ever seen. Fans and pundits are constantly arguing about which side was better and who would win in a one-off match. So we broke it down.
The Red Devils were such a versatile outfit that it’s hard to pin down how they’d line-up for a game like this, unlike when we broke down Arsenal’s Invincibles vs Liverpool’s 19/20 Champions. I expect they’d go with their trusted 4-3-3 formation that brought them so much joy in big games. United’s defence was very solid throughout the campaign, which showed as they started over 30 games together that season. In midfield the English trio of Owen Hargreaves, Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes brought control, energy, bite and creativity as they were able to adapt their aim in the game depending on the opponent. Up front, arguably the best trio in Premier League history as Cristiano Ronaldo was partnered by the two world class work-horses Carlos Tevez and Wayne Rooney.
This set-up allowed the front three to roam about at their own free will in attack but assured they were always covered if they lost the ball. Ronaldo would often find himself in the centre forward role despite starting on the left, while traditional central players Rooney and Tevez would use their tremendous conditioning to cover him out wide. It got the best out of Ronaldo, with the Portuguese equalling the record of 31 league goals in a 38 game season, which would stand until Mo Salah broke the record for Liverpool in 2017/18.
Man City’s team was a similar shape, but much more focused on possession play and just completely overwhelming their opponents. Full-backs Kyle Walker and Fabian Delph would tuck into “inverted” roles to allow the wingers to stay high and wide, while giving space to the two midfield playmakers Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva in advanced positions. Fernandinho would often slot in between the two centre-backs and City would form a block in the opposition’s final third in an attempt to prevent counter attacks. Any time a counter would break through, they would usually take a ‘tactical foul’ approach to bring it to an immediate halt and start the process all over again.
While Man City would almost certainly hog the ball in this fixture, it’s nothing Fergie’s side wouldn’t be used to. En route to their Champions League triumph, they took on the mighty Barcelona. Frank Rijkaard’s side employed a similar style and had similar levels of talent in their squad at the time with the likes of Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o, Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta all regulars. Just a year before Pep’s Barcelona beat United with a very similar core side in the following Champions League final, the Old Trafford side kept back-to-back clean sheets in the two-legged semi-final clash beating them 1-0 on aggregate thanks to a Paul Scholes wonder strike.
This shows they’re more than capable of defending against the best, while still maintaining a threat on the counter attack. Ronaldo, Rooney and co. ripped Arsenal apart on the counter the following season, famously thrashing them in their own Emirates back yard.
Man City are no pushovers though. En route to their unprecedented century, they beat Arsenal, Spurs and Chelsea home and away. They also beat Liverpool 5-0 at home and Man Utd at Old Trafford. They smashed the record for most goals scored in a season, with 106 in 38 games and conceded just 29 times. The front three of Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane banded together for a combined 49 goals and 32 assists in the league, while Kevin De Bruyne led the assists charts with 16 of his.
It would be the ultimate tactical clash and while Guardiola has gotten the better of Sir Alex Ferguson on every occasion they’ve met as managers, this would be a different encounter. This United side was so versatile and capable of controlling a game or soaking up pressure and countering. While Man City were phenomenal going forward, defensively they were always a little bit exposed. With three top forwards and a genuinely fantastic midfield, United would have the perfect remedy to City’s possession game and I expect they’d take the win based on that.