Both teams featured heavily in pre-season predictions thanks to their excellent summers. City added more creativity to an already pulsating attack and, crucially, turned a position of weakness – full-back – into one of genuine strength, though they did need to break the transfer record for a defender twice in the process. They also appear to have solved their goalkeeping issue without sacrificing Pep Guardiola’s desire to play out from the back.
United’s summer business, meanwhile, revolved primarily around two players Jose Mourinho knew well from his time at Chelsea: Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic. The former has made a superb start to life in United’s iconic No.9 shirt, co-leading the Premier League’s scoring charts and netting his first Champions League goal since he was a teenager at Anderlecht.
Mourinho has forged a side that is a potent mix of experienced resolve and youthful exuberance, and already they possess many of the hallmarks of the Special One’s best teams of yore. Matic has been the key, freeing up the attackers ahead of him and providing the balance his manager craved for so much of last season. Before the Serb’s arrival United worked in extremes: either all-out attack or, more commonly, backs to the walls. Now they have a happy medium between the two, always a threat but rarely exposed.
City, meanwhile, are a year deeper into Guardiola’s reign and more attuned to the very particular demands of his philosophy. That was in evidence in midweek against West Brom in the Carabao Cup. A mere 147 seconds after kick-off, and after playing 54 passes without letting the home side touch the ball save for Ben Foster’s parry, Leroy Sane put City ahead. They are controlling matches to a much larger extent and boast the best possession stats and pass completion in the league.
But they have also found a ruthlessness that was not there before. Guardiola was critical of his side’s profligacy last season, so much so that he put an enormous amount of ultimately fruitless energy into trying to bring Alexis Sanchez to the Etihad. But City are no weaker for missing out on the Chilean, with the South American combo of Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Aguero on fire at the start of the new season, scoring nine times combined.
Premier League top scorers 2017/18
That is likely to continue too, with City at home to the worst team in the Premier League on Saturday as an already weary-looking Roy Hodgson brings his hapless Crystal Palace side to Manchester. United have a more testing trip to Southampton, though, where they only mustered a draw last season – albeit with one eye on the Europa League – while the early days of Mauricio Pellegrino’s reign suggest his side will be hard to beat and not particularly thrilling.
Yet while many observers see the two clubs delivering on pre-season expectations, the managers themselves are less inclined to get carried away. If United were to lose on Saturday, they would only be one point worse off than after six games of last season when they ultimately finished sixth. Mourinho has often pointed that out after wins, though his side are four points up on their haul from the respective fixtures last season.
Man Utd’s next five fixtures
CSKA Moscow – Champions League (A) – Wed 27 Sep
Crystal Palace (H) – Sat 30 Sep
Liverpool (A) – Sat 14 Oct
Benfica – Champions League (A) – Wed 18 Oct
Man City’s next five fixtures
Shaktar Donetsk – Champions League (H) – Tue 26 Sep
Chelsea (A) – Sat 30 Sep
Stoke City (H) – Sat 14 Oct
Napoli – Champions League (H) – Tue 17 Oct
City made a similarly fast start last season, but drifted out of contention. For a while they looked unstoppable, as though Guardiola had immediately worked out English football. But so often front-runners seem to get found out. Last year it was Tottenham who planted the seed of doubt over City’s credentials (though Brendan Rodgers might claim it was his Celtic side a few days earlier).
The season previous, Leicester City’s gung-ho approach risked undermining their unlikely title charge, so Claudio Ranieri took a more defensive approach, switching to 4-4-2 and swapping his full-backs to a more defence-conscious pairing. A once leaky defence that needed to be bribed with the offer of free pizzas suddenly became a clean sheet magnet.
But it remains to be seen if Guardiola can adapt and react in such a way. So much of his style revolves around imposing his own philosophy on other teams, rather than reacting when others find a way of neutering his approach. Mourinho is the opposite, and took exactly the kind of pragmatic attitude needed in the 2014/15 season. His side started like a train, Cesc Fabregas assisting at will, routing teams. But then he realised the need to apply the handbrake – albeit a little too hard as they trudged to the title.
This United side feel well equipped to do similarly this season, though the true test will come against another top-six rival. For City, their squad is bigger, their defence more resilient, their tactical options more varied and a young side that needed rejuvenating with fresh blood is more experienced. The two biggest arrivals last year, John Stones and Leroy Sane, were barely out of their teens and had never competed for titles at a club with such huge expectations. They know the score now.
Of the chasing pack, Chelsea feel like the most realistic challengers to the Manchester clubs’ early stranglehold on the division. Liverpool’s defence is still porous; Tottenham’s squad remains light on quality depth while Wembley is proving problematic; and Arsenal are, well, Arsenal. Right now, Guardiola and Mourinho look like they used the summer window best, assembling the most balanced squads in the Premier League, and they’ll take some beating.