Football is wonderful is so many ways. Emotionally tied, fans often experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows during the course of a match, let alone a season. Writing this preview, United fans will be feeling rather jaded, frustrated and possibly confused, but as ever in football there is always the next game. However, I suspect there is an uneasy air of doubt among the faithful rather than optimism.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this, was it? The summer fanfare which heralded significant incomings, including a manager many regarded with the precise calibre to right the wrongs of the post-Ferguson era, has yet to yield the results expected.
Last Sunday’s abject performance against Chelsea was a season low thus far, but Mourinho will be very conscious that Wednesday night against City, will be an opportunity to get a positive outcome both on and off the football pitch. Last Sunday should be the line in the sand Mourinho draws to ensure below par performances by individuals cannot be repeated. And what an opportunity to prove the naysayers wrong than hosting rivals City at home in a Cup tie.
Mourinho, a serial winner, always used the League Cup as a bedding ground to instil a winning mentality during his time at Chelsea. Indeed he has won the trophy three times. I would expect nothing different in his approach to this game, indeed the importance of the match has been intensified given the recent league defeat to City and Sunday’s thumping by Chelsea.
Wednesday therefore provides the perfect opportunity for Mourinho and United to come out of a tough fortnight with an encouraging outcome. That it is against local rivals and also reigniting the Pep v Jose drama, give the match an edge with both sides desperately need a result.
For all United’s current travails, it has gone somewhat unnoticed that City too are on a run of poor results. If Jose is under pressure then Pep will also be feeling it given his side’s five-match winless streak now equals the longest run without a win in Guardiola’s career. So there is much at stake on Wednesday evening.
The team sheets when submitted on Wednesday will be telling. Both managers cannot afford a defeat, not least because this is a derby, but both sides will also be conscious of important matches coming up meaning the often cited reason for tinkering with the team will likely come to bear.
For United, it is unfortunately certain that Eric Bailly will be absent, seemingly badly injured in the defeat against Chelsea, it will be a blow to the team given his encouraging performances since his move in the summer. It would not surprise were Mourinho were to resurrect the Smalling – Blind centre-half partnership allowing Luke Shaw to take his place at left back. In a game of this magnitude and importance it would be a surprise not to see Valencia retain his place at right back.
The muddled midfield, a cause for concern and a symptom of United’s frailties recently will again be the focus. Carrick, albeit against inferior opposition in Fenerbahce, showed his qualities and deserves the opportunity to usurp the immobile and technically deficient Fellaini who is likely to be unavailable anyway. Pogba will play as should Herrera meaning if Mourinho continues his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation it could be Carrick and Herrera as the double-pivot ahead of the defence with Carrick asked to play a deeper role. This should free Pogba further forward but will also give United a compact midfield three when City have possession.
Who plays either side of Pogba will also be important in a system that will need to be designed to be able to retrieve the ball from City as well as limit their proclivity for playing triangles and moving the ball quickly.
Mourinho’s biggest decision will be what to do to with Ibrahimovic. A talented and strong personality, he has however contributed very little recently. Could this be the match to leave him out and give Rashford the number 9 role? Rashford is far quicker and far more mobile and could be the key in pressuring City’s back line, starting with goalkeeper Bravo, as Guardiola stubbornly continues to persevere with playing short passes from a goalkeeper who seems ill-equipped to do so in a football culture where he will be constantly pressured. Indeed, City’s first league defeat against Tottenham highlighted that they are vulnerable to a high press and being pressured when in possession in their defensive third and especially on the edge of their penalty area. In order for this to be replicated, Mourinho will have to accept that Ibrahimovic cannot lead the line.
If Zlatan is indeed ‘rested’, it would allow Mourinho to supplement Rashford’s pace up front with having Martial on the left and possibly giving Mkhitaryan an opportunity from the right. Having made a career as a pragmatic coach, it would make sense were Mourinho to change the team to counter an opposition.
Memphis Depay, another peripheral figure will also be hoping to get playing time but in such an important match, his wastefulness against a possession hungry team would be difficult to justify.
United fans, like Mourinho, expect a reaction from the team.
For City, they too will be without key players as Kevin De Bruyne, arguably their player of the season thus far, is out injured. Pablo Zabaletta is also doubtful meaning the returning Vincent Kompany may be pressed to play a second game in just a few days. With his injury record that would be a risk but City need greater stability at the back given their current form. With the Champions League return against Barcelona on the horizon, it would not be a surprise were Guardiola to ring the changes as he tries to manage his squad.
This may not be a Premier League encounter, or a high profile European match but this EFL Cup Fourth Round tie could be a pivotal moment for United, Mourinho and some players. Win and Jose will be able to spin it his way, content that a rival has been dispatched and able to claim the future is bright. Lose and the vultures will begin to circle. There is no middle ground with United, especially with a figure like Mourinho in charge. That he divides opinion is an understatement and Wednesday, this early on in his tenure, could be a watershed moment for Jose and many of the players he inherited. Mourinho will not shirk his responsibility; indeed he will be insisting his players stand up and be counted in a match some of them really cannot afford to lose.