Erling Haaland pursuit could mean last outing for Pep Guardiola’s perfect Man City derby formula – Dominic Farrell


The last time Manchester City scored in a home derby against Manchester United, Nicolas Otamendi was the man on the scoresheet.

While you let that information sink in and salute El General, it’s not hard to imagine where the conversation will turn if City draw another derby day blank on Sunday.

“I think the club needs a striker, definitely,” Pep Guardiola said at his pre-match briefing, getting out on the front foot and dismissing praise of the false-nine strategy that has been his go-to for most of the past two seasons.

“You say we play fantastically well without a striker because we are winning. If we are not winning, you tell me we need a striker. I am naive. How is this guy playing without a striker? In the Premier League you have to play with a striker and we need a striker.”

He added: “We tried [to buy one] but sometimes it’s not possible. We are not going to buy one [just to] buy. It must give us something special.”

The last point is indisputably true. Erling Haaland is widely reported to be the Premier League champions’ prime target for the forthcoming transfer window and certainly comes into the “special” bracket.

Any replacement for club-record goalscorer Sergio Aguero would have to be in any case, while versatile Argentina international Julian Alvarez promises to be an exciting edition.

Guardiola being on his guard in the days before a big game is understandable, but he should be more accepting of plaudits for a tactic that has uprooted convention in England’s top flight.

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Irrespective of how good Haaland or any other marque arrival proves to be, City will lose something when they revert to playing with a conventional forward.

The capacity of Guardiola’s signature tactic to beguile and bamboozle has never been more evident than in the Manchester derby.

Without a fixed striker to marshall, Harry Maguire and his central defensive colleagues generally do not have the foggiest.

A month after Otamendi’s headed consolation in that December 2019 2-1 defeat, City arrived at Old Trafford for the first leg of a Carabao Cup semi-final.

What on earth was Pep playing at? Had he done a weird thing for a big game again? The Blues lined up in what roughly amounted to a 4-2-4-0 formation, with Bernardo Silva and Kevin De Bruyne roving off the frontline and Raheem Sterling and Riyad Mahrez pushed high down the flanks.

Riyad Mahrez was on target in January 2020 when City’s strikerless formation baffled Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Bernardo opened the scoring, Mahrez got in on the act and De Bruyne prompted an Andreas Pereira own goal after twisting Phil Jones inside out. A 3-0 half-time deficit flattered United and that was tie over.

Or it should have been. Marcus Rashford pulled one back as City became sluggish during the second period and United set nerves at the Etihad jangling with a 1-0 second-leg victory as Sergio Aguero returned to the hosts’ starting line-up.

Gabriel Jesus led the line in last season’s 0-0 draw at Old Trafford and did likewise in the return fixture, where his most notable contribution was giving away a penalty that set United on the way to a 2-0 win a year ago.

In between those games, Mahrez started as a false nine and City were very good value for another Carabao Cup semi-final triumph behind enemy lines.

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That 2-0 margin was emulated on the scoreboard in the Premier League earlier this season but City’s freewheeling line-up, where Bernardo was nominally the central attacker, wrought total domination upon Old Trafford.

Much has been made of United’s impressive recent derby record and Guardiola’s solitary home win in the fixture feels anomalous. He can start to remedy that by sticking with his tried and trusted strikerless tactic this weekend.

Haaland’s arrival would massively excite City fans, with very good reason. But right now, as any United defender would tell you, Guardiola’s men are less dangerous when they do pick a striker.

Who do you want to see Pep Guardiola start in attack for the 187th Manchester derby? Follow the City Is Ours editor Dom Farrell on Twitter to get involved in the discussion and give us your thoughts in the comments section below.

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