"All derbies are big now, that is the nature of the landscape."
Sir Alex Ferguson, 4th October 2011
It has taken just eight weeks of the English Premier League season for a consensus to emerge that the battle for the title will be a two-horse race between Manchester United and Manchester City. Noisy neighbours no more, Roberto Mancini’s men have made the expected step up this season, matching Manchester United stride for stride, win for win and goal for goal.
With the Manchester derby more hotly anticipated than ever before, the rivalry has huge potential. The combined star power is mind-blowing. Manchester City have dominated the transfer headlines over the past few years by splashing out more than £150M on the quartet of Yaya Toure, Sergio Aguero, Edin Dzeko and Carlos Tevez, with plenty more arrivals also boosting the club’s trophy hunt. But it is easy to forget that United’s big guns Wayne Rooney, Ashley Young, Nani, Phil Jones and improving goalkeeper David de Gea did not come cheap either over the years.
And closer examination of the two squads and their respective transfer budgets confirms that their title scrap this season will not be a one-off. Neither club is fading off the map any time soon – if anything, both will be stronger next year and even stronger the year after. With Chelsea unquestionably ageing despite their solid start, Arsenal forced into an overhaul of their squad and Liverpool still one or two stars short, the future looks distinctly red and sky blue.
United provided a glimpse of the future in the second half of the Community Shield when Ferguson turned to his youngsters and sent out a team with an average age of 22. Young, at 26, was the oldest player in a red shirt until Dimitar Berbatov came off the bench late on.
Jones, 19, has adjusted so seamlessly at centre back that Rio Ferdinand is struggling to regain his place for club and country. Chris Smalling has proved that he is an option at both right back and centre back, Tom Cleverley is the closest United have come to a Paul Scholes replacement and Danny Welbeck has forced his way ahead of Berbatov and Michael Owen in the pecking order with his lively displays. This second coming of the "Fergie Fledglings" has caught England boss Fabio Capello’s attention too.
Over at the Etihad Stadium, City also have a youthful look, with goalkeeper Joe Hart showing maturity beyond his years, Aguero having the biggest impact of any summer signing and even Mario Balotelli producing displays that suggest he is growing up. Throw in Samir Nasri and Adam Johnson, who are both just 24, and Mancini has a core group that could lead the City charge for at least the next seven or eight years.
City have also demonstrated that lessons were learnt last year when they faltered after sitting in a promising position at Christmas. Mancini has been more cavalier in his approach and his players have delivered, stretching 1-0 leads rather than dropping deep to defend. Of course, it helps that City have such a wealth of attacking options that the Italian saw no problem in Tevez’ suspension and was happy to leave Dzeko on the bench at Blackburn, seemingly as a punishment for his behaviour after being substituted in Munich earlier that week.
All the signs point to the two Manchester clubs establishing a stranglehold on the title race over the next ten years, much in the way that United and Arsenal did between 1998 and 2004. Both will continue to spend while their current squads continue to blossom, ensuring that they remain head and shoulders above the competition. After all, there is room for improvement for both United and City after a disappointing start to the Champions League group stage. But while the rest of the pack can point to difference makers in their teams, no other club can match the strength from top to bottom that Ferguson and Mancini have at their disposal.
So pay close attention to this season’s title race. The chances are this is just a glimpse of the future and a telling indication of how the next decade of Premier League action will unfold.