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Published: 11:43 | 30/8/16

OPINION: Familiarity in transition in Manchester

Football columnist Wayne Barton on the early title contenders

It’s almost as if last season never happened. A malfunction. A hiccup.

There is something ominously familiar in the way that the top clubs of the last decade are gearing up at the start of this Premier League season. The timing of the international break is frustrating at this particular time for Mancunians and neutrals alike; while Chelsea and their supporters will undoubtedly be glad for the timing of the Manchester derby to interrupt the groove that their likely, and traditional, title rivals are getting themselves into.

Antonio Conte has gone about business at Stamford Bridge in far less of a spotlight than the two Northern powerhouses but he will be happy for that to be the case. Their need for regeneration was arguably more severe than Manchester City or United but Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho have made it their business to make a number of considerable statements upon their arrival in the North West.

Manchester City’s demolition of West Ham United was par for the course but they are already earning rave reviews for the early signs of Guardiola’s favoured style beginning to have an impact on the Premier League. The suitability of that approach, and the way it would be adopted in the English game, have been debated for years now, but it already looks like those doubts were ill-founded.

Of course, cynics will point to the £168m spent by City on top of the £150m from last summer which saw little in the way of on-pitch benefit, and suggest that Guardiola has had a comfortable time of it so far.

Raheem Sterling is finally showing the sort of form which indicates why City paid £44m to sign him from Liverpool last year and Guardiola is receiving much of the credit for that. But it’s in the high-profile casualty of Joe Hart and the marginalisation of Yaya Toure that the Spanish manager is making the biggest statements, as he engineers the evolution of the club in the manner in which he has been sought to do for many years. It is a ruthless approach but these are not statements for the sake of making them - these are necessary progressions for the club to make if they have any hope of justifying the colossal expense of the project up at the Etihad Stadium.

They say it is harder to stay at the top than it is to stay there and that has been the case at Old Trafford for the past three years since they last won the Premier League. Jose Mourinho is making similar statements to Guardiola - Bastian Schweinsteiger, seen as a marquee coup last summer, has been told (and shown, for that matter) that he is not in the manager’s plans. And Chris Smalling, seen by many as United’s best defender last season, has found himself scrapping for minutes thanks to the imperious form of Daley Blind and the so-far immaculate acclimatisation of Eric Bailly at centre half.

There are neutrals who - as in the case of Joe Hart, with City - find this kind of selection baffling but the justification is in the results.

And Smalling, who was much improved under Louis van Gaal, was still prone to errors at key points last season - and, perhaps far more critically, was part of a back line that looked as if it lacked a leader. At least so far this season, that no longer looks as if it is a concern for Manchester United.

And while City exhibit their slickness, there are also signs of the exciting potential in Mourinho’s squad; Marcus Rashford took just minutes of his first Premier League appearance of the season to earn his club the points in a cameo performance which suggested that United probably don’t have their strongest line up figured out. This being the modern game, it’s probably not as straightforward as suggesting he needs to come to a decision on that soon. They did leave it late against Hull City but it was a game United thoroughly deserved to win, even if it took the kitchen sink to decide it.

Mourinho is a big fan of different options though it sometimes feels - to supporters at least - that their manager is starting games with a handicap in his selection, leaving better options on the bench. There are definite problems to address. Wayne Rooney’s overall form has not been too impressive, but the statistics show he is making the kind of contribution which has been critical to United’s results. Anthony Martial has been in subdued form so far. Rashford and Henrikh Mkhitaryan have shown the kind of contribution they can make, and Juan Mata’s early inclusion in the manager’s first team selection is encouraging for a player many thought would be one of the bigger name casualties. Memphis Depay and Jesse Lingard are both probably looking at the squad and wondering where their time - and position, for that matter - is going to come.

Alongside Zlatan Ibrahimovic, those are eight options vying for four positions, and even with the clamour for Rooney to be dropped, there is a logic that extends beyond mere statistics to support Mourinho’s decision to continue to play his captain. For so long as he continues to make telling contributions at critical moments - so far having a hand in all of United’s decisive goals in the league - the likelihood is that Mourinho will play Rooney.

It all sets up for a mouthwatering derby clash, as much for the excitement from the sidelines as that on the pitch, with Mourinho and Guardiola set to go head to head for the first time in domestic competition since both were at Spain’s top two clubs. There will be a keen eye trained for who comes out on top but also the first signs of flaws in either side’s game plan. Four games in to the season will be far too soon to draw any real conclusions but considering the difference in quality between both of these teams from last season to this, there is no doubt whatsoever that the first Manchester derby of the season is likely to have something of an influence on the title race.

Follow Wayne Barton on Twitter @Yolkie_

Wayne Barton has been the football columnist for international broadcaster Setanta Sports since 2011 and has been described by the Independent as ‘the leading writer on Manchester United on the period between Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson’ after numerous books on the club and autobiographies. The most recent are ‘74/75’ with Tommy Docherty and ‘Rise Of The Underdog’, the autobiography of Danny Higginbotham.

Wayne has also worked in Hollywood and across the USA with Gold and Platinum selling musicians and actors from the monster hit TV show ‘Breaking Bad’.

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