Alex Keble looks ahead to the Manchester derby on Sunday and picks out five reasons why United should be able to beat City at Old Trafford.
"A downturn in form is certainly on the cards, not least because the grueling winter schedule is about to begin; a win for United, cutting the lead down to just five points, would emphatically change the story of the 2017/18 season."
Manchester United host Manchester City on Sunday in the most important match of the Premier League season so far. Anything but a win for the hosts would reinforce the media narrative that Pep Guardiola's side have already sewn up the title, whereas if United grab all three points the race is blown wide open.
Man City's lead is more vulnerable than it looked a week ago. Three successive late wins might be proof of their resilience - or it might be proof they cannot sustain high-tempo attacking football throughout the campaign. A downturn in form is certainly on the cards, not least because the grueling winter schedule is about to begin; a win for United, cutting the lead down to just five points, would emphatically change the story of the 2017/18 season.
And it isn't an unlikely result, not least because United have discovered a new formation that seems perfectly set up to counter-attack the league leaders. Here are five reasons why United will beat City on Sunday:
1) Mourinho's new 3-4-1-2 formation has injected new energy into United's attack
For four years Manchester United have struggled to raise the tempo inside Old Trafford, playing with the sort of seized up limbs that suggest nerves are getting the better of them. But Jose Mourinho's switch to a 3-4-1-2 formation for the last two league matches, in which United have scored seven goals, suggests the Portuguese has finally found the solution.
Using wing-backs gives Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia more freedom to attack, while Romelu Lukaku is more comfortable with two attackers in close support; Anthony Martial looks like an excellent centre-forward and Jesse Lingard is revelling in central attacking midfield. United suddenly look very dangerous and fluid in their attacking patterns.
2) Lingard & Martial can expose City's high line and shaky centre-backs
The new system is well suited to counter-attacking Manchester City, whose weakness at centre-back should be targeted by Mourinho this weekend. United will allow their opponents to hold the vast majority of possession, which means City will hold a very high defensive line and, with the full-backs pushing on, leave their two centre-backs alone to deal with Martial and Lukaku.
It is easy to envisage these two, with Lingard, bursting forward to great effect, especially since either Eliaquim Mangala or Vincent Kompany will be partnered alongside Nikolas Otamendi. This is clearly an error-prone defence that is vulnerable to the sort of outstanding one-touch counters we saw from United against both Watford and Arsenal in the last week.
3) Man City are struggling to break down deep-lying opponents
City have notably slowed down in the last three league matches, partly because they are becoming increasingly tired as we enter the hectic winter schedule and partly because opponents are learning how to counteract them; West Ham United, building on a blueprint first put forward by Huddersfield Town, came closest to solving the Man City riddle last weekend.
United will mimic David Moyes's approach, namely sitting deep and refusing to be drawn towards the ball. The Hammers stayed on their feet and refused to commit to tackles, which stopped City from pulling the strings and finding space with their one-twos on the edge of the penalty area. Significantly, they also made sure to cut off the passing lines to Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva by sitting the midfield just in front of them, which meant the two key City playmakers rarely got on the ball. Consequently, Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling were unusually quiet.
City only improved when De Bruyne dropped deeper and City switched to a 4-2-4 formation, but such an attacking gamble would prove catastrophic against United's front three. In short, Mourinho's usual approach to games against title contenders should be very effective.
4) Pogba's suspension is a blessing in disguise for Man Utd
Paul Pogba's red card might look like a blow for United ahead of Sunday's clash, but in fact the Frenchman is not the right sort of player for the visit of City. Pogba is an excellent attacking threat (his strength in possession is particularly effective at breaking through defensive sides) but he is far too wayward defensively, often drifting so far from Nemanja Matic that the Serbian is left all alone to defend central midfield. Against De Bruyne and Silva, this is obviously a serious problem.
Pogba's positional indiscipline has become even more important now Mourinho is using a two-man midfield, and in fact had Pogba been fit the Portuguese would probably have sacrificed Lingard to accommodate Ander Herrera to sure up midfield. With Pogba unavailable, United can keep their current formation, safe in the knowledge that nobody in the team is a defensive liability.
5) Valencia should get the better of Delph
Valencia has been outstanding recently, no doubt thanks to the addition of an extra centre-back behind him. The Ecuador international dominated at Arsenal, scoring the opener after breaking past the Gunners left wing-back; he is committing to attack far more frequently now that he has fewer defensive responsibilities.
Pouring down the right, his individual battle with converted left-back Fabian Delph might be the most fascinating head-to-head of the afternoon. Delph has deputised admirably in Benjamin Mendy's absence but remains too soft in the tackle and occasionally makes the wrong positional decision. Valencia should be able to break ahead of him regularly and cause havoc down United's right.