Manchester United’s midfield has played a big role in Erik ten Hag’s recent revival, but it is absolutely crucial that he gets that area on the ground at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday.
The Ten Hag must decide whether to keep Christian Eriksen and Bruno Fernandes in place against Manchester City, or whether to opt for a defensive-minded formation and go with two suitable players to hold this time.
With a player like Casemiro waiting in the wings for his first league start, it must be tempting to team up with Scott McTominay to give his defense some extra protection.
But if the Ten Hag do that and leave out one of their most creative players, if United lose they will wonder why they changed a winning team and didn’t go further.
I think the Ten Hag will stick with Eriksen and Fernandes depending on how well they have played, but if he doesn’t change anything and loses, he will be asking similar questions.
People will say why bring Casemiro and not use him in a game like this?
United’s dilemma has partly been created by Scott McTominay’s excellent form, on top of the performances of Eriksen and Fernandes.
McTominay has sat deeper, alongside Eriksen, in a defensive role and has performed so well that he has kept Casemiro out of the squad since signing from Real Madrid in August.
We already knew McTominay had the athleticism and strength for the position, but what has really impressed me lately is the discipline he has shown.
In the matches I have seen, the number of balls he has taken out of his box has been incredible. He is terrific at spotting danger and returns to help his centre-halves.
He’s really improved, it’s like he’s taken over the role. I don’t think he can do it on his own against a team as good as City.
Midfield is where City will dominate.
The midfield is crucial in any game, but even more so when you play for City, firstly because of the excellent quality, but also because of the possession they have.
When you go to the Etihad Stadium, you will always be more defensive than attacking. And if you’re constantly defending for a long time, you have to be in a defensive mindset – that’s not the case with Eriksen or Fernandes.
That’s not a criticism or that I think they’re lazy, it’s just saying what they are – creative footballers who like to get forward and do damage. Both are better with the ball than without.
The same argument could be made about Kevin de Bruyne and Bernardo Silva for City, but with so much possession on Sunday, they will spend much less time defending.
Also, De Bruyne and Silva have been playing with Pep Guardiola for a few years now and their defensive skills are getting better and better. Bernardo’s pressing and tracking of runners in particular is exceptional for a player of his quality.
But even if Eriksen and Fernandes can – and they can’t – match that side of their game, I’d still argue that because United will have much less possession they’ll need more midfielders in there, almost all of whom are defensively inclined. the time
I don’t see how the midfield doesn’t become a place where City dominate, so instead of matching it, United need to focus on not hurting City. That’s where Casemiro comes in.
If United achieve something, it will be a big deal
However United came up, they will find it very difficult to keep City out. Erling Haaland is at the top of his game and seems to score in every game he plays, but they are not just dominated by him.
The whole City team looks comfortable the way they are playing, and my feeling is that it will be too much for United. They will find a way because they are creative all over the field.
To get something out of the game, United will probably need to score first and then defend brilliantly.
They like to play on the break and have enjoyed playing like that against City in recent seasons, so it’s not inconceivable that they can defend in numbers and cause problems for the opposition, but I think it’s unlikely.
Helping United’s chances is the positivity around them at the moment. I think everyone can see how they are still going in the right direction, and that won’t change if they lose this derby.
The Ten Hags have had the intelligence to see what their strengths are and also what they can’t do at this point: they play from behind much less now than they did when they lost the first two games of the season.
Since then the change has been incredible. If only someone had said it after seeing it United lost 4-0 at Brentford in August, by the time they played City in October, a win would have left them two points clear of the runners-up with a game in hand, I’d say there’s no chance of them being that close.
When you think about where they’ve come from, if United get something from this game, it will be a very big deal.
It will affect the outlook of opposing teams because people will start thinking ‘United are back’, but the most important benefit would be the confidence it will bring to their players.
To go on a run like they have, beating a Liverpool and Arsenal team and then avoiding defeat against City, it would be incredible to be involved in the next round.
I don’t mean to say that they can compete for the title or anything like that, because that gap is not going to be fixed that quickly and United will still have bad days.
But this is a big moment for them. Their belief will continue to grow though and even a point against City will give the entire squad an even bigger boost at the start of a very busy month.
Danny Murphy was speaking to BBC Sport’s Chris Bevan.