There was a moment, as David Moyes was analysing the "punches" that have come his way, when Manchester United's manager took exception to some of the less appealing statistics that have accompanied his difficult, erratic first year in the job and decided to put forward some numbers of his own.

"If you actually look back statistically I don't think we've been absolutely dominated," he said. "At half-time against Liverpool they had 240 passes, we had 240 passes; we had 51% possession, they had 49% possession. So if you want to talk about the stats I could actually tell you things."

Unfortunately for Moyes, it does not really matter in football if the pass count is pretty similar when the opposition move the ball more purposefully, with real penetration, in better areas of the pitch. That, more than anything, has been the backdrop to United's difficulties, why they go into the Manchester derby further back in the league than anyone at Old Trafford could possibly have imagined, and why they have won only once against clubs in the top nine.

At least Moyes can be encouraged by his team's last two performances, against Olympiakos and West Ham, and the shift in mood since that point last week when the weight of pressure on Sir Alex Ferguson's successor was heavier than at any time over the previous nine months.

Yet we are still at the stage when Manuel Pellegrini can talk about City being the better team – he used the word "bigger" but put that down to language issues – without fear of being pulled up. "Maybe they are stronger [physically], and we are more technical," was another observation as the City manager compared the two midfields. More technical means skill, refinement and everything, in short, that United used to take for granted. For the team in seventh position, those words should cut deep.

The evidence is there, though. Yaya Touré's hat-trick against Fulham on Saturday took him to 20 goals this season. Compare that to the seven different players who have operated in central midfield for Moyes, and their combined tally of five. Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley have one apiece. The other three came from Phil Jones, who would rather be known as a defender.

City have scored 76 times in the league compared with 48 for their neighbours and, most remarkably, United's total of 18 goals at home is the same as the clubs occupying the bottom two positions, Cardiff and Fulham, and fewer than Hull, Stoke, Swansea and West Ham.

It all leads to the same conclusion. While their opponents tomorrow have Touré, Fernandinho, David Silva and Samir Nasri backing up their strike force, United simply do not have a potential match-winner in midfield. "I take that point," Moyes said. "We still think Marouane Fellaini can get some goals. But I do agree. They [City] have quality – very good midfield players who are goalscorers."

United are at least addressing the issue. This newspaper's information is that deals have already been provisionally agreed for two players in what promises to be an extensive recruitment programme over the summer. The club have deliberately tried to set up transfers six months in advance. Joel Glazer has been more hands-on than many people might realise, speaking to the executive vice chairman, Ed Woodward, three times a day on average from Florida and the club have been encouraged by the feedback from agents. Not once has there has been an indication that a player might be put off because of the prospect of playing in the Europa League next season.

"This club has got spending power, too," Moyes said, to a question about City's financial strength. "I think they [United] have got that. I've not been told at any time that they don't have that and I do think that the club will compete."

United's supporters should be mildly reassured, even if it is strange how quickly Moyes lapses into talking about "they", when he means his own club. For now, though, United's priority is not to lose any more face, whereas City have far more riding on this game than just the normal derby conflict.

Pellegrini's team are six points behind the leaders, Chelsea, but have played three games fewer and the trip across Manchester kicks off a pivotal run of four matches that will also take them to Arsenal and Liverpool. For City, the next two and a half weeks should tell us a lot more about whether they can reunite themselves with the championship trophy.

"I think they are very motivated to try to win the title," Pellegrini said of his players. "All of us wanted to stay in every competition but when you are eliminated [from the Champions League and FA Cup]one of the positive things is that we are now just focusing on the league. We don't have problems physically or mentally. We are just trying to fight for the title."

They are never quite as formidable without Sergio Agüero, and Álvaro Negredo's form is not ideal approaching the business end of the season. Negredo has not scored in the league since 12 January and it is tempting to wonder whether Pellegrini regrets playing him in the second leg of the Capital One Cup semi-final against West Ham.

City were 3-0 ahead – 9-0 on aggregate – when Negredo injured his shoulder in the last moments and he has not been the same since.

"He was injured but not an important injury," Pellegrini said. "I trust in Álvaro and I'm sure he will return to his normal performances." Scoring goals is not generally one of their problems. Edin Dzeko is fit again and Touré, according to Pellegrini, now has authentic credentials to be recognised as the outstanding player in his position in the world. "At the moment because of the number of goals he has scored, of course. But Yaya is not just about the goals he scores. He is the complete midfielder."

After the 4-1 defeat at City in September, Moyes had predicted he "might have to take a few more punches". Now, he admits it has been harder than he imagined.

"They've definitely hurt. They've hurt more because I joined Manchester United with big expectations myself – that I'm coming to a winning club. I've got a winning mentality and that's what I wanted to do, so I'm disappointed with myself and disappointed that we've been unable to do that. It's not for the want of trying, that's for sure."

Moyes got his fingers burned when he described Liverpool as favourites before their game at Old Trafford. As Brendan Rodgers put it after his team's 3-0 win: "I would never say that at Liverpool, even if we were bottom." Nor, importantly, would Ferguson.

Moyes says it was truthful not defeatist. "José Mourinho says Manchester City are favourites for the title. I don't know if anyone has replied to that, but you [the media] were quite happy to reply to me saying it.

"You know the style I am. I try to be [honest]. Some of you don't write it the way I say it but that's the difference between me and you, possibly."

It had been a slightly prickly press conference on his side of Carrington, whereas a few hundred yards across the fields it was a lighter mood inside City's gates. Pellegrini could be seen peering out of the window at the blue skies.

"Tomorrow," he said, "we hope it will be a beautiful day again."