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United & City | So far this season

The current International break has allowed for a pause and period of reflection upon the Premier League season so far. Heading into the campaign, it was anticipated that both Manchester clubs were expected to challenge for the title and as we head towards the quarter-point mark of the 2011/12 season it is both United and City who have set the early pace.

Through seven games to date, the clubs are neck and neck in the standings. Both have posted identical records of six wins and a draw and are separated by just one goal: United having scored 24 goals to City’s 23, with just five goals conceded apiece.

The attacking threat that both sides possess has been the major focal point with City’s off-season additions being fundamental to a more expansive game, whilst United, not to be outdone, have themselves posted some high-scoring wins this season.

This potency in front of goal is ahead of any other side in the Premier League and is illustrated in the following numbers:

What is evident here is that City have been the more productive of the two sides, casting off the caution that was evident at times during 2010/11 to be ahead of United in terms of chances created and shots (across all categories) attempted. The differential here though is in conversion rate; United’s superior (albeit slightly) goals scored tally sees them post a higher shot conversion (18% to 14%) and chance conversion (29% to 20%) than City.

But what leads to this ability to create, and ultimately convert, these opportunities? Largely this is underpinned by a strong and effective passing game and particularly so in the final third of the pitch where the creative talents come to the fore.

So what do the passing numbers show for both United and City?

Certainly City have posted a higher number of touches per game (around 25 or so more), but this has also translated into higher a number of passes attempted (over 250 more so far this season) with the conversion % more or less the same for both teams.

City average six more final third entries per game and have attempted and completed more passes – posting a better conversion % (77% compared to 73%). These numbers are also replicated in the attacking (opposition) half figures too, with City again boasting a higher conversion rate. As shown earlier though, ultimately United’s conversion in terms of goals is higher but with City generally more productive in this area it will be interesting to see if they can translate this into a higher conversion as the season progresses, and, if this then also brings more points.

We can also see that City favour the right hand side of the field by over 10% more than United (with left wing passes extremely similar numbers wise) but interestingly United have made almost 50% more long balls (427 to 295) than City, illustrating that they are more prone to favouring swift counter-attacking moves, transferring the ball to the attack far quicker and utilising the pace of their forward line to great success this season.

So in a season of fine margins, what could separate the two Manchester sides? Perhaps with both sides producing such similar offensive output this season, could it be the defensive area of the game that is a difference maker?

Across four categories – interceptions, clearances, blocks and perhaps most telling, chances conceded United have far higher numbers which more than indicate that United’s defence is more stretched than City’s (not forgetting that both Rio Ferdinand and Nemandja Vidic have rarely featured this season). The key figure here is chances conceded: 40 more in total which equates to a shade under six per game; little wonder that United are blocking, clearing and intercepting more as a result. So far, of course, this hasn’t been to the detriment of United’s season but as we progress deeper into the season could this be an area that hurts United unless they move to resolve the issue of the number of chances being conceded?To date, both sides have conceded less than a goal a game with City posting one more clean sheet than United and the figures in terms of tackling and possession success are very similar indeed. City have a far higher aerial success % but this is unlikely to hold many clues as to what could separate the two but there are noticeable differences here.

To use boxing parlance, both sides have spent the early rounds of the 2010/11 jabbing away with very little to seperate the two on points, but with the Derby now a little over ten days away, who will be the side that strikes and lands the first meaningful blow.

Managing Editor of SBNation's Manchester City blog 'Bitter and Blue' and author of 'Man City 365'.
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