* If you were looking to show someone the condensed highlights to sum up the 175th Manchester derby, you would not bother to them show any of the three goals, the contentious decisions or the fouls that drew yellow cards. Instead you would put on a loop the 60 seconds between the 90th and 91st minute, with Manchester City keeping the ball in the corner.
For that minute, Manchester United’s players chased frustrated shadows, David Silva and Raheem Sterling playing the ball off their opponents in turn to gain the throw-ins that allowed to run down the clock. Jose Mourinho could only watch grimly on from the touchline, as helpless as his players.
The general pattern of play in the final moments of any game in which the home side is a goal down is set in stone. The home team has the visitors pinned in their own penalty area, peppering them with long balls or trying to drag defenders out of position in order to create one final chance.
Yet in stoppage time, it was City who should have scored a third goal on at least two occasions. From the 90th minute onwards, City had three corners and David de Gea was forced into a save. City were playing with their city rivals, taunting them. Noisy neighbours have truly become bigger brothers.
* That is that for the title, by all reasonable expectations. The only questions are by how much and with how many points, and it would be no surprise if Pep Guardiola’s team broke records on both of those measures.
That is all United deserve, frankly. There is no huge shame in losing to Manchester City, but they have also dropped points against Stoke, Huddersfield, Chelsea and Liverpool. When your opponents have taken 46 of a possible 48 points, your only choice is to be as faultless as possible or flounder. Mourinho, who virtually conceded the league title after the game, may again shift the focus to Europe in an attempt at season-saving.
The question was asked of Guardiola, generally by those who were doubtful of his coaching ability, whether he could not just win the Premier League but dominate it. City have now set a record for consecutive Premier League wins in a single season and have an 11-point gap to second place after just 16 games. There is your answer.
There are also those (Manchester United supporters, probably) who will point to the money spent and deem that expenditure is a bigger influence than the manager. Go tell that to Fabian Delph, Fernandhino, Raheem Sterling and Kevin de Bruyne, all of whom Guardiola inherited and all of whom he has improved. The same people accusing him of wanton spending were the same ones criticising the purchases of Kyle Walker and Ederson, and both of those have improved as players too.
City finished the match with a defence of Walker, Otamendi, Eliaquim Mangala and Delph. If they are already the finished article, it is because Guardiola has made them so.
In direct comparison with Manchester United, the spending argument truly does become irrelevant. Even if you believe Guardiola’s investment in players merits them being better than their city neighbours, nothing accounts for the dominance they enjoyed in United’s back yard. The only surprise was that the margin was not greater, and that City’s own mistake kept United in the contest.
* There is nothing wrong with defensive football and pragmatism; this is football and not horse dancing or gymnastics. Yet when you spend large sums of money on your playing squad and resort to stifling tactics and a containment strategy, it narrows the margins of goodwill. It is the same principle that did for Tony Pulis, and applies to Jose Mourinho here.
The game promised to be fascinating because it pitched a team team happy with a draw but not adept at playing for one against a team adept at playing for a draw but who needed a win. That fascination was slightly dampened by the latter’s inability to play their role effectively.
Mourinho might consider the annoyance of Manchester United supporters at full-time to be misplaced, but he cannot be surprised. He utilised a method of stopping City having shots on target, and yet they had more than they did against West Brom, Huddersfield, Leicester, Brighton and Everton. That’s either a poor plan or a plan poorly executed, and neither look good on Mourinho. The serial winner, and the serial second season champion, has been pushed firmly into second place.
“Manchester City are a very good team and they are protected by the luck, and the gods of football are behind them,” was Mourinho’s typically sour post-match assessment. Presumably he’s expecting us to fill in the bit about City also playing better than Mourinho’s side?
* The game started exactly as everyone expected, City playing passing triangles in midfield and enjoying the majority of the possession. The game may have been played at Old Trafford, but Guardiola’s team were playing identically to if they had been the home team, and United were happy to play the role of away side.
Yet it was still surprising just how much United ceded possession and territory in the first half. Nobody expected them to overload in the final third, but the first 30 minutes were a virtual rerun of Liverpool vs Everton at Anfield two hours before. The away support chanted that United were “parking the bus”, and you could hardly disagree with that sentiment.
While you can see Mourinho’s logic, the patience of United supporters eventually ran out. “Attack, attack, attack,” a pocket of them chanted before half-time.
* This is a strategy that can work, of course, and has been proven to be effective when two teams are not evenly matched. Yet it depends upon your use of the ball when you eventually do get possession, and United were mostly dreadful in the first half. While you can understand them not streaming forward, it would be nice to think that a team assembled for so much money might be able to pass the ball between them.
Instead, United’s tactic was to launch the ball long from their own half, with Marcos Rojo doing exactly that at least six times in the first 35 minutes. United’s passing accuracy was 64.5% in the first half, which essentially involved them gambling on winning the second balls after they failed to win headers. It was neither pretty nor effective. United touched the ball in the penalty area twice before half-time.
* It’s also at times like these that you have to have sympathy for Romelu Lukaku. With Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial both dropping deep to muck in at the back, Lukaku was given his own postcode in which to roam and tasked with shielding the ball from at least three opposition players, waiting for a teammate to get within passing distance and then attempting to find them with the ball.
Lukaku had ten touches of the ball in the first half (somehow Jesse Lingard only managed nine) and was able to complete three passes. Yet what else can you expect if the sum total of your creativity is to smash the ball 60 or 70 yards up the pitch at him? The lasting image of Lukaku’s match was of him offering a thumbs up to a teammate more than half the pitch away, applauding them for the attempt in playing the impossible pass. Well, that and the set-piece errors.
* Eventually, City’s dominance paid off and they took the lead, although the source of the goal was surprising. The build-up to the game focused on City’s struggles in defending set pieces in the absence of John Stones, with numerous preview pieces detailing the difference in average height between the two sides.
Having passed and probed for the majority of the half, City won a corner after De Gea tipped over Leroy Sane’s shot, and Otamendi was able to put enough pressure on Lukaku to make his headed clearance entirely ineffective. There was David Silva, three yards from goal and played onside by Ashley Young. The magician could not fail to stab the ball home.
* When their nearest rivals are deferring to them even when playing at home, it’s no hyperbole to say that the only team who can beat Manchester City is City themselves. Before half-time, we got an example of exactly why that might not be the worst strategy.
There seemed little danger when Rojo launched his umpteenth long ball forward of the half, albeit this time at least it was from inside City’s half of the pitch. But when Otamendi misjudged his leap for the ball and failed to even get a connection on it, Marcus Rashford sensed danger quicker than Delph. Delph allowed the ball to rebound off his body and into the penalty area.
With Rashford running onto the ball and Ederson slow to come off his line (although through no fault of his own), the goal suddenly looked extremely large and the goalkeeper minute. Rashford did the necessary to give United one of the more unmerited equalisers in the history of this fixture.
* This is more about the game’s coverage rather than the match itself, but it’s playing on my mind so let’s get it covered now. Can that please be the last time that a celebrity is invited into the Sky Sports studio? For all the criticism of anodyne ex-players, they at least have experience of playing the game.
Noel Gallagher was presumably invited in because he was a) famous b) a Manchester City supporter and c) up for doing it, but even in combination that should not be sufficient to make it a bright idea. Interview Gallagher as part of the build-up if you must, but elevating him into a studio guest raises an expectation of analysis. Instead we go nothing.
This is not intended as a huge slam of Sky Sports, who do most things excellently well and are better than the rest at football coverage. But this was a gamble that didn’t pay off. Football is brilliant enough without needing celebrities to endorse or sell it.
* For all City’s dominance and chances at 2-1, Mourinho will be furious that the two goals they did concede were from set pieces. He made no bones about admitting as much in his post-match press conference:
“When you see Man City play you expect them to score great goals, not two disgraceful goals. They’re the last goals you expect to concede against them.”
The use of the word “disgraceful”, in order to somehow put the blame on City for having the temerity to score the goals they did. is pretty delicious, but United did cause their own downfall.
The second goal was more calamitous than the first, Lukaku’s clearance rebounding of Ander Herrera and falling into the path of Otamendi. The only surprise is that Herrera did not hit the floor and demand that the ball be sent off after it struck him.
* The truth – and it is an uncomfortable one for Mourinho – is that City did not even play particularly well. On commentary, Jamie Carragher expressed his frustration at their propensity to try and walk the ball into the net despite Manchester United packing the box with defenders, but that stemmed from a lack of penetrative passing in the final third.
From the moment City took the lead, this attacking inefficiency on City’s part became more obvious as three times they wasted 3 vs 3 or 4 vs 3 situations on the counter through either picking the wrong pass or over-hitting the right one.
This was the the only difference between Sunday and the 6-1 victory in 2011, when three goals were scored after the 89th minute to put a gloss on an already dominant win. Mourinho claimed that City were fortunate to win the match, but you’d struggle to find a reasonable home supporter leaving Old Trafford who agreed with that sentiment.
* We’re going to do the dives now, and both were. Gabriel Jesus should have been booked for his first-half fall, and Michael Oliver was incorrect to simply not award a penalty and leave it at that.
That said, I’m not going to pour scorn on a referee who sees every incident once in full speed and make a decision accordingly. Not giving the penalty was the big decision, and he got it right. If we had a disciplinary system that retrospectively awarded yellow cards then Jesus would merit one, but we don’t.
Herrera’s was just as blatant, and the Spaniard doubled down on the incident with the ludicrous rigmarole of laying his hands on referee Oliver’s shoulders and then calling Manchester City players cheats.
Herrera does have the support of his manager, funnily enough. “The result was made with a big penalty not given on Ander Herrera,” Mourinho said. “That would have been 2-2 with 20 minutes to go. Michael was unlucky because it was a clear penalty.” What utter c*ckwash.
* Still, that wasn’t the most childish reaction to the penalty incident. Because we haven’t heard from everyone’s favourite Mourinho lickspittle yet. Big, big call, Dunc, but crucially the right one:
Big, big call by Michael Oliver not to give a penalty and to book Ander Herrera when there was clear contact from Otamendi. Especially after Gabriel Jesus' first-half effort. #MUNMCI
— Duncan Castles (@DuncanCastles) December 10, 2017
* Herrera’s transformation from attacking central midfielder to snide bulldog was a surprising one, but nothing like as shocking as his decline from key first-team player to his current status. He was picked in central midfield to deal with the threat of De Bruyne and Silva breaking forward, with Mourinho sacrificing his three-man central defence as part of the plan.
It is easy to think that Herrera is playing well, because he does an awful lot and being busy is often considered half the fight. But did Herrera actually offer anything going forward (six completed passes in the opposition half)? And did he actually stop City from dominating the midfield battle?
Last season’s logic would have dictated that Herrera is exactly the type of player you would want in a derby match, but his form has tailed off terribly. He’s now the dog with bark but no bite.
* And so to Manchester United’s huge ‘what if?’, the absence of Paul Pogba. We have to assume Mourinho would have been more expansive with his best midfielder available, and have to assume that Pogba would have done a better job than Herrera in almost every area.
This is not an excuse, just a reason. Manchester City were also missing important players in Benjamin Mendy and John Stones, two defenders whose replacements made mistakes for United’s goal. But Mourinho will look forward to facing City on what he would consider an even keel, with Pogba available.
It’s just a shame for him that City might have the title confirmed by April 7.
* In terms of the game’s best player, I’m going to go for Ederson. He isn’t picked just because of the double save from Lukaku and Juan Mata, although it was utterly superb and match-defining, but because of his coolness under pressure.
In the first half, Kyle Walker fizzed a backpass to his goalkeeper. Ederson didn’t just control the ball dead, but had the composure to drop his shoulder to distract the incoming striker and calmly lay the ball off to a teammate. It was impossible not to think of Joe Hart and wince.
A reminder, should it be needed, that Ederson is playing in a new league in a new country and is still just 24 years old. Three months ago he suffered horrific facial damage in a challenge with Sadio Mane, and yet has somehow managed to gain confidence from that incident. He is one of the stars of this Premier League season.