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Manchester City

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Football Whispers
 By David Mooney

Man City know what to expect at United and have had good practice

So far this season, Manchester City have the solution to the problems posed by defensive teams. In 2-1 victories against West Ham, Southampton and Huddersfield, Pep Guardiola's side have managed to grind down the resistance, including twice coming from behind to win.

It's not unexpected that teams will try to frustrate City. Watching them smash five, six, or seven past their opponents earlier in the season, in games where the defeated side didn't play particularly badly, it's perfectly natural for opposing managers to want to try and kill the game.

Without John Stones organising the defence, City have looked particularly weak from set pieces, too. Huddersfield took the lead thanks to an own goal from a corner; Southampton levelled when Oriol Romeu found space following a throw in; West Ham also opened the scoring from a corner.

How else can teams see a way to avoid a battering? If they press City's defenders, they leave themselves at risk of being opened up by allowing space to any of City's lightening quick forward players. So a back five, with a bank of four protecting it, and one lone striker up front is the obvious way to crowd out that third of the pitch.

Of course, by sitting deep, it often means a team doesn't have an outlet once they have the ball and so set pieces become all the more important. It's the only respite they get from working hard in their own box, while City try to pass and pass around or through them.

Given how long City have taken to beat that tactic in recent weeks -- the winning strikes in each of the last three games have come in the 83rd minute or later -- it's so far proven to be the most likely way of stopping the Guardiola juggernaut.

Jose Mourinho, a man not averse to reducing a match to its dullest to get a result, will have taken note. With Manchester United standing in City's way of a record-equalling 14 consecutive Premier League wins this weekend, the travelling fans need to brace themselves for a masterclass in killing a game.

There is, of course, the Champions League trip to Shakhtar Donetsk sandwiched in the midweek before the Manchester derby, but with City having already won the group it's unlikely Guardiola will spend too much time fretting over it. He'll send the fewest first-team players to Ukraine he can, allowing him to focus on the trip to Old Trafford and how to break down his rival's well-organised team.

Without Paul Pogba (suspended after a red card in the win over Arsenal), Mourinho isn't likely to attack until the moment is right, as his 3-1 win at the Emirates on Saturday proved. If that means giving City possession for 89 minutes, he'll do that.

The trouble for Guardiola is that it's a tactic that could work. United have already proven themselves to be the most adept defensively this season, having conceded the fewest goals in the top flight, and Mourinho has a reputation for having a "boring" gameplan against the more attractive attacking teams.

Man City have fought until the final minute in recent games.

City's method of continuing to pass and move to exploit tired legs and minds may come unstuck. Meanwhile, Guardiola's other answer -- playing with two wingers and two strikers to flood the box and force space -- is risky, too. It worked against Huddersfield and West Ham, but it would leave less cover defensively, and offer Mourinho the chance to launch the counter-attack he craves.

It would certainly help City if they could score both first and early in the game. In all of their last four late wins, the team haven't found the net until after half-time -- and the longer the game stays level, the more frustrated the players can get.

There has been a slump in City's performances since Stones limped out of the 2-0 win at Leicester. The build-up has been more laboured without the centre-back, who is key in moving the ball quickly from defence, and the victories since have been more of a slog in his absence. Even winning at the King Power stadium was difficult, with the defender pulling his hamstring at 0-0.

It also makes the idea that City haven't had to contend with injuries, a sentiment reiterated by Pogba in a somewhat disrespectful interview with the BBC, all the more incorrect. Along with Stones missing, Benjamin Mendy is out until the end of the season, Vincent Kompany has only just returned from yet another calf problem, and Sergio Aguero was left with a broken rib following a car crash.

The difference has been that Guardiola has found a way to manage without his key players so far. If anything, it makes City's achievement of 43 points from a possible 45 even more impressive.

The manager deserves credit for getting his team to win in difficult circumstances, especially if they've not been playing well. The last three games have been good practice for the type of match they're likely to get at Old Trafford; City's ability to dig out a result against a defensive team will be tested to the max on Sunday.

David Mooney is ESPN FC's Manchester City blogger. Twitter: @DavidMooney


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