United Primed for City Derby
The 189th Manchester derby comes from Old Trafford on Saturday and Man United are looking to paint the town red.
Manchester United come into this intracity derby in red-hot form, unbeaten in seven Premier League games at Old Trafford.
The men in red have not conceded a goal across their last five league meetings at the Theatre of Dreams, the first time since 2017 that United have kept five successive clean sheets at home.
Erik ten Hag's men won 11 of their last 12 matches in all competitions and they have lost just once in their last 18 competitive games. United have won five of their last six in the league, steering them to fourth-place level on 35 points with Newcastle Utd.
The Red Devils are almost unrecognisable from this time a year ago. After 17 games last term, they trailed leaders Manchester City by 11 points. Come the end of the season, the champions accrued 35 points more than their arch rivals.
Half a year into the job it is already clear to see Ten Hag has stamped his authority, unified the dressing room, embedded a culture of hard work and constant improvement, and given the club a clear direction to follow.
In United's most recent game, versus Charlton Athletic in the Carabao Cup, Ten Hag became the quickest manager to pick up 20 competitive wins for the club as the 52-year-old took just 27 matches to do so.
The Reds advanced to the semi-finals and are essentially three games away from curbing a six-year spell without silverware. United last won a trophy in May 2017 and the club has collected only two domestic cups in almost 10 years since Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down.
In an interview which aired last week, the manager openly criticised United's recruitment in recent years. “The club has bought an unimaginable number of players in recent years who have not been good enough.
“Most purchases have been average – and, at United, average is not good enough. United’s shirt weighs heavily.
“Only real personalities, who can perform under great pressure, can play here” Ten Hag added.
Coming from the current boss, those comments are fair and accurate. The club's transfer strategy, prior to his appointment, has been purely hit-or-miss. Under the Dutch coach, United signed five players in the summer, all of whom have chipped in and been of essence in the first half of the season.
Earlier this month Ten Hag made it clear he and United would be looking to add a striker to the ranks, but only if they came across the right player. Wout Weghorst is expected to complete his transfer on Friday but the Dutch centre-forward will not be available to feature in the derby, according to Ten Hag at his pre-match press conference.
In the first portion of the season, Ten Hag has overseen victories over three of the five teams which finished above United last term, taking 10 points from a possible 15 against Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Man City, and Tottenham.
The Red Devils are still due a visit to each of Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham, and they have yet to welcome both Chelsea and Man City to Old Trafford. The first of those five tasks comes at lunchtime Saturday as United entertain City.
United are four points adrift Pep Guardiola's reigning champions, having played 17 games apiece, and they could end Saturday within a point of their noisy neighbours. The Manchester rivals headline a bumper weekend which also sees league leaders Arsenal battle with local foes Tottenham.
United are one of just two teams to pick up maximum points since the resumption of the league campaign on Boxing Day.
Ten Hag's side has shipped in seven goals without conceding, meanwhile Man City have won twice and drawn once since the World Cup. The Sky Blues have kept a clean sheet just twice in their last eight league matches.
Albeit not in the league, Man City suffered a defeat to Southampton in the Carabao Cup on Wednesday night. The Citizens, winners of the League Cup in six of the last eight seasons, went down 2-0 to the Saints as Guardiola lost a quarter-final tie for the first time in his managerial career.
This will be just the second time Ten Hag and Guardiola go head-to-head, though they are no strangers to one another. The former was appointed manager of Bayern Munich reserves in 2013, the same summer the latter took the reins of the German club's senior team.
Perhaps Ten Hag's most lethal weapon at the moment is none other than in-form forward Marcus Rashford. The England forward is firing on all cylinders while enjoying the best spell of his career, with seven goals in six games since the season recommenced in December.
Rashford has found the net in eight consecutive home games, the first United player to achieve this feat since Wayne Rooney in 2010. However, the 25-year-old has not scored in any of his last five appearances versus City [in the league] and he last netted in this fixture in 2017.
The Citizens stormed to a 6-3 victory in the reverse fixture last October, as Erling Haaland and Phil Foden each bagged a hat-trick.
The Reds have picked up 23 points from 10 league matches since that damning defeat. Out of their 18 competitive matches in that time, United have won 15 times and taken a solitary defeat, scoring 36 and conceding 11 goals.
One major factor which changed following that day in October was big-money signing Casemiro slotting into the side. Following his switch from Real Madrid, the Brazil international took a few games to get up to speed and he initially started from the bench in favour of Scott McTominay.
Casemiro did not start in the reverse fixture at the Etihad Stadium but his introduction on the hour mark signalled a change of fortunes for United. Since making a substitute appearance across town, Casemiro has been on the pitch for all but four out of United’s 931 minutes of league action.
Once the five-time Champions League winner took his spot in the XI, he has gone on to become one of the first names on the teamsheet. United forked out £60million to sign Casemiro in August and his performances continue to suggest the hefty investment was well worth it.
The 30-year-old is the prototype sitting midfielder that United had been crying out for yonks and he has rejuvenated a midfield which had been below-par up until his arrival. Many a time has Ten Hag hailed Casemiro as the 'cement between the stones'.
Being a top-of-the-range midfielder means that not only does Casemiro break up play and retrieve possession, he has also shown his hand in redistribution upfield as well as direct goal involvements.
In United's 3-0 win over Nottingham Forest last month, the Brazilian intercepted a pass by Emmanuel Dennis before teeing up countryman Fred to put the contest to bed.
More recently, in United's latest league outing versus Bournemouth, Casemiro notched his first goal at Old Trafford as he volleyed in a free-kick delivered perfectly by Christian Eriksen.
The Red Devils next face Man City followed by back-to-back trips to the capital for clashes with Crystal Palace and Arsenal.
United's meeting with Crystal Palace has been rescheduled to next Wednesday (Jan 18) in between two massive fixtures against the current top two teams in the Premier League.
The match at Selhurst Park was originally scheduled for September but it had been postponed following the passing of Queen Elizabeth II.
Both United and Palace are available midweek with neither team needing to contest a replay in the FA Cup Third Round; United edged past Everton meanwhile Palace were knocked out by Southampton.
Beyond that, Ten Hag and his men are due a trip to Premier League leaders Arsenal followed by three cup ties in the space of seven days.
Man United Upcoming Fixtures:
14 Jan - Man City (H) - Premier League
18 Jan - Crystal Palace (A) - Premier League 22 Jan - Arsenal (A) - Premier League
25 Jan - Nottingham Forest (A) - League Cup
28 Jan - Reading (H) - FA Cup
1 Feb - Nottingham Forest (H) - League Cup
(Cover photo: Naomi Baker via Getty Images)