Manchester City will go into Sunday’s derby against Manchester United with mixed emotions.
On the one hand, there are clearly a far superior team to United. The 2-0 win at Old Trafford four months ago was at times embarrassing to watch, such was City’s dominance and United’s inability to compete. Pep Guardiola should be confident his team can do the same again.
On the other, City’s home record against their cross-town rivals in recent times is abysmal. United have won on their previous three trips to the Etihad Stadium, although Ole Gunnar-Solskjaer – the manager who somehow masterminded those wins – is now out of the picture.
His successor, Ralf Rangnick, could present a different but no-less potent threat to the Blues.
In the Premier League this season, City have failed to win six of their 27 games. They include two defeats to Tottenham, the 2-2 draw at Liverpool and the surprise 2-0 home loss to Crystal Palace.
Southampton account for the other two games thanks to a goalless draw at the Etihad last September and a 1-1 draw at St Mary’s in January.
Of all those teams, Southampton can argue to be the one that came closest to outplaying City. The 0-0 in Manchester saw the Saints stifle City’s creative build-up in a way most teams can only dream of, cutting off the passing lanes from defensive to attack and forcing City into errors.
In the reverse fixture, some intense early pressure saw Southampton go ahead through a fine Kyle Walker-Peters striker, before defending compactly and making it hard for City to find a way through. An Aymeric Laporte header rescued a point.
The fact that Southampton played so well and neutralised City’s attack in both games was no fluke; the carefully crafted tactics of coach Ralph Hasenhuttl were to thank.
Since taking charge of the south coast club in December 2018, the Austrian coach has gradually implemented his gegenpressing principles. After some fairly major hiccups – Southampton have twice lost 9-0 during his tenure – his side press high and well, yet, against the more attacking sides in the league, defend compactly and resolutely.
Hasenhuttl is a protégé of Rangnick, nicknamed by some as the ‘godfather’ of gegenpressing. The pair’s coaching journeys are somewhat intertwined; Hasenhuttl replaced his master as RB Leipzig boss in 2016, before Rangnick returned after Hasenhuttl’s departure.
Both have held multiple positions within the Red Bull operation, whose clubs are synonymous with the signature counter-pressing style that Rangnick instilled during his tenure as director of football at both Leipzig and RB Salzburg between 2012 and 2015.
It would be easy to say that the Premier League from the German school coaches all employ the same style. Jurgen Klopp does practice a form of gegenpressing at Liverpool, but his side keep the ball more than one would expect. Meanwhile, some of Thomas Tuchel’s ideas at Chelsea are more Cruyffian, as he looks to occupy space and make the pitch wide.
The style Rangnick is trying to instil at United is most directly comparable to Hasenhuttl’s Southampton, and that could spell a problem for City on derby day.
However, his project at Old Trafford is light years from being complete – not ideal for a man on a short-term contract. While the wingers dropping back to help defensively is very much in keeping with Hasenhuttl’s approach, United’s pressing from the front is not going so well. Cristiano Ronaldo has never been a pressing machine, and not even Rangnick can change that.
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After Southampton’s 1-1 draw at Old Trafford last month, Hasenhuttl was honest in his assessment of his mentor’s team: “It’s not a big secret that when they lose the ball the reverse gears are not the best from everybody.”
Therein lies United’s problem: what Rangnick wants his team to do in theory and what it does in practice can be two very different things.
Whether City have a job breaking down United on Sunday, and how much United threaten when they win the ball, will ultimately come down to how much Rangnick manages to close that gap.