In football, getting a reputation has always been easier than losing one. Roberto Mancini's press conference ahead of Manchester derby was half a dozen questions in before the man from Sky wanted to know whether Manchester City's manager would be going for it at Old Trafford. Or whether we might see more of what happened at times last season and City playing for a draw. A bore draw, presumably.
Half an hour earlier, across the fields, past the stables and electricity pylons to where United train a couple of hundred yards away, Sir Alex Ferguson was being asked about City's tendency last season to stifle difficult away games. Did he think they would be more positive this time? Ferguson knew where the line of questioning was taking him and neatly avoided saying anything that could be loosely construed as criticism of Mancini. "He's got his job to do, like everyone else," he said.
The accusation is that Mancini can be too stuffy, too conservative, not prepared often enough to let the handbrake off. Yet like many things in football it does not always stand up to proper analysis. City have accumulated 27 goals from their first eight fixtures and, in the Premier League years, no other side has been more prolific at this stage of the season.
The 5-1 thrashing of Tottenham Hotspur in August, when Edin Dzeko scored four, was the biggest away win at White Hart Lane for 14 years. Sergio Agüero has nine goals in his first 10 appearances for the club. Dzeko has managed seven in 10. The Bosnian has not scored in his last six games but Mario Balotelli's re-emergence has made it scarcely matter, with a goal in each of his last four appearances. City have scored three or more times in six of their eight matches and when you take into account they have averaged almost 20 shots per game it can feel like a trick of the mind that Mancini was condemned last season for being too defence-minded.
United have an impressive 25 goals of their own, including a couple of scorelines against Arsenal and Bolton Wanderers that would be better suited to the 1950s, and they have an advantage in terms of squad depth. Ferguson has seven strikers if we are counting Federico Macheda and Mame Biram Diouf and so much competition for places that Michael Owen has not started a league fixture for more than a year.
Wayne Rooney's 10 games this season have resulted in 11 goals. Javier Hernández has not been hugely involved, starting five games, but has the ability to score 20-plus goals this season. Daniel Welbeck went to Sunderland on loan last season as a boy and has come back a man. Dimitar Berbatov scored 20 times last season to finish, with Carlos Tevez, as the joint winner of the Golden Boot but he belongs to the edges now, starting only one league game. The competition is brutal.
Mancini does not have as many choices now that Tevez has been isolated and it could become a problem if, say, two of his three forwards succumbed to injury at the same time. Mancini has talked with his coaching staff about using David Silva or Samir Nasri, even Yaya Touré, as a secondary striker and it would be no surprise if City try to bring in a replacement for Tevez in January.
The top clubs tend to have at least four high-calibre forwards and, though Dzeko and Balotelli have enjoyed rich bursts of form, there is no guarantee either can keep it up. Dzeko had a poor game against Villarreal on Tuesday and Mancini will hope it was a one-off rather than a return to last season's form. As for Balotelli, the signs are encouraging but who can really say whether he has turned the corner? Mancini seemed amused on Friday when it was put to him that Balotelli was turning into a "model" player. "I hope he has changed his mentality," he said, "but with Mario everything can happen, at every moment."
What can be said with certainty is that both teams are blessed with forwards of devastating qualities. Arsène Wenger said week that Robin van Persie was now the best striker in the league but, in Manchester, they would argue it is either Rooney or Agüero. Rooney is in the best scoring form of his life while Agüero has settled seamlessly into City's team. Ferguson's eyes sparkle when he is asked about Hernández's movement inside the penalty area and the way he can elude opponents. Mancini is on record saying he rates Balotelli ahead of Fernando Torres and that the Italy international can become one of the best three players in the world. Balotelli, with his latest escapade involving fireworks in the early hours of yesterday morning, clearly still lacks maturity but Mancini could be the only man out there to bring out the player's raw qualities.
At Liverpool last Saturday Ferguson did what Mancini would occasionally do last season and tried to smother the game. But it is rare for Ferguson to be so negative. The United manager will often make a show of strength by putting on three attacking substitutes all at once if his team are losing. As Ron Atkinson once said: "There is nothing more exciting in football than watching Manchester United chase a game."
Mancini can still perplex sometimes and it was strange, say, that in the Champions League tie against Bayern Munich, he withdrew Dzeko and brought on Nigel de Jong when the team were losing 2-0. But those moments have become increasingly rare and City this season have marginally edged United as the most attacking side in the land. Like United, their forwards are so good it would be daft to try any other way.
Hart; Jones, Vidic (capt), Kompany, Evra; De Jong; Silva, Y Touré, Nani; Rooney, Agüero