Manchester United pulled a rabbit out of the hat once again on Tuesday night — but they will need more than Cristiano Ronaldo’s brilliance to beat Manchester City.
The Red Devils have made a habit of scoring late in Europe this season, with their talismanic No7 netting another stoppage-time goal in the 2-2 draw with Atalanta.
But Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men must conjure up a more complete team performance when they come up against the Citizens in this lunchtime’s Manchester derby.
With three wins and a draw in their last four league meetings with their noisy neighbours, we explore how United can secure another result against Pep Guardiola’s champions.
Midfield and McFred
United’s match-winners are undoubtedly Bruno Fernandes and Ronaldo.
So a key task for Solskjaer is how he builds the team around them — getting the best out of them in attack while remaining solid in defence.
One of the ways he can do just that is to play two midfielders in front of the back four, rather than one.
Fred and Scott McTominay offer an impressive range of attributes in this area of the pitch.
Standing at 6ft 4in, McTominay’s height works well with Fred’s more agile and nippy approach to defending, so a double pivot makes perfect sense.
That said, Fernandes could also be effective as the most attacking player of a midfield trio, similar to the position Ilkay Gundogan played so effectively for City last season.
Nemanja Matic offers similar attributes to McTominay but might be more easily bypassed by the visitors’ high-speed attack than United’s other options in this area.
Paul Pogba will miss this game due to suspension and that may save Solskjaer from having to drop him after a poor performance against Atalanta.
The Frenchman, 28, was far from the only player to struggle in Tuesday’s fixture but the United boss has found it hard to consistently get the best from his midfield maestro.
He is far more comfortable using functional and adaptable players instead of those who thrive within specific tactical set-ups.
United legend Paul Scholes issued a damning appraisal of Pogba’s Champions League performance.
He said: “Pogba needs someone talking to him all the time. He needs experienced players behind him.
“How old is he? 28? He’s one of those players where he’ll get to 35 doing the same stupid stuff. People know it now, they see it every day.
“The biggest thing with Paul is his concentration — he goes away with the fairies all the time.”
An alternative option could be Donny van de Beek, who came off the bench against Atalanta.
But the Dutchman has played just six minutes in the league so far this season and it would be a huge surprise to see him start today.
High energy approach
United do not really press as a unit — they seem to rely on individual players closing down opposition defenders and midfielders.
That can often lead to a disorganised press with one or two players closing down while others are not.
The solution to this is to pack the midfield and attack with high-energy players who will close down City’s creative assets throughout the 90 minutes.
Fernandes brings plenty of dynamism in this area, while starting the likes of Edinson Cavani and Marcus Rashford would offer similar impetus.
Solskjaer switched to a back three for the matches against Tottenham and Atalanta.
This was potentially because of the presence of Raphael Varane in both fixtures. Once the Frenchman left the field injured against the Italians, the United boss reverted to a back four.
That may have been as a result of their need for a goal to get back into the game or because he will only use this shape with Varane fit.
Solskjaer still has three central defenders available in Harry Maguire, Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof.
But with Maguire yet to get back to full fitness, Bailly inconsistent and Lindelof an injury doubt, the Norwegian coach has a selection headache in this area of the field.
The case for the defence
There is another way United could add extra support to their defence while still having plenty of options in attack.
Unlike many modern full-backs, Aaron Wan-Bissaka is known for being defensively solid first and an attacking outlet second.
He is particularly effective when defending in one-on-one situations.
If Wan-Bissaka, 23, played as more of a conservative right-back — only getting forward on rare occasions as a wide centre-back might — this would give Luke Shaw more freedom on the other side and provide greater support alongside Lindelof in the absence of Varane.
And if he wanted to go ultra defensive, Solskjaer could do something similar with a back five, which would also allow him to play Cavani up front with Ronaldo.
If the United coach gets the balance right, it could go a long way to securing a much-needed victory against their city rivals.