Man United 1-2 Man City: 16 Conclusions

Date published: Saturday 10th September 2016 4:50

De Bruyne

* Well that was fun. Proper, proper fun. For once the hype was justified – a game that could not have been more different from the 0-0 between these two teams last October when each team managed just one shot on target in a soporific 90 minutes. We were spared the managerial pantomime that the media had been trying to create ever since this pair arrived in Manchester, but we were blessed with 95 intriguing minutes – from United’s initial burst, through City’s masterclass, punctuated by a United lifeline and ending with the hurling of a red kitchen sink that was diverted time and time again by Nicolas Otamendi, Fernando and Fernandinho. Excellence had given way to resilience and few people could argue that City did not deserve all three points.

 

* Jose cocked it up. We mean he really cocked it up. The clue was in the pre-match interview, when he was asked about bringing in Jesse Lingard for his first Premier League minutes of the season and Henrikh Mkhitaryan for his first Premier League start. In a Manchester derby. After three straight victories. His explanation featured little about the talents of the two players he had entrusted, but plenty about Pep Guardiola’s tactics of pushing his full-backs into central areas of the pitch. Mourinho – at home, with the world’s most expensive player in his team – had picked his XI with City’s tactics in mind.

The contrast with Guardiola’s answer when asked about Kelechi Iheanacho was stark. “He is our striker,” he said. What do you do when your first-choice striker is injured? Pick your second-choice striker, of course. Having won games with the trio of Nolito, Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling behind one striker, his reaction to the loss of that one striker was to replace him with another. Not to disrupt the rest of the team. That would have been his predilection were they playing United, Stoke or West Brom. While Guardiola had faith in his method (we used to be able to say ‘philosophy’, but that has become a swear word thanks to Brendan and Louis), Mourinho adjusted to try and counter the opposition. At home. In a derby.

 

* “Sometimes players disappoint their managers,” said Mourinho when asked whether he had made a mistake by bringing in Lingard and Mkhitaryan. There were plenty thinking he would park the bus in this derby, but nobody predicted that he would throw his players underneath. After three successive victories with the same attacking front four, you have to take full responsibility if you change that line-up. Manchester United looked like a side that had never played together in that opening 45 minutes largely because they were a side that had never played together. Bring in a limited player like Lingard and another who has barely played in games of this magnitude and you really should prepare to be disappointed.

“We started the game badly,” was the ultimate understatement from Mourinho, but he really must take at least as much responsibility as his players for that woeful start. He was trying to be clever, clever and just ended up looking like two kinds of fool.

 

* Let’s take a second to look at the performances of that pair in a handful of simple statistics. You could not ask for a better summation of Lingard’s limitations than the fact that he touched the ball less than any other player (12) in that first half, but ran further than anybody else. As he made no tackles and no interceptions, that’s a hell of a lot of running for no real purpose. A headless chicken might still have legs, but it does not have a sodding clue where it is running.

As for the nervous-looking Mkhitaryan – he lost possession more times than anybody else in that first half (13). That he contrived to lose the ball more often than Lingard actually touched it is tantamount to some kind of performance art, commissioned by a man who puts his hands up afterwards and says “sometimes players disappoint their managers”.

 

* It’s difficult to comprehend just how bad United contrived to play in that first half. They were incredibly sloppy in possession, seemed happy not to exert any pressure out of possession, and allowed City’s movement to entirely bamboozle them. City targeted United’s right-hand side from the opening whistle and it took only three minutes for the impressive Otamendi to exploit the yawning gap between Eric Bailly and Antonio Valencia with a cute through ball. De Bruyne – whether under instruction from Guardiola or using his own initiative – drifted left and linked with the incisive Nolito, busy David Silva and Aleksandar Kolarov to absolutely devastating effect. The half-time statistics showed that 50% of City’s attacks had come down that third of the pitch; after ten minutes left-sided centre-half Daley Blind had not touched the ball despite being the United defence already coming under significant pressure.

 

* “City are a great team in midfield but I know their weak points,” Mourinho told Spanish TV before the game. We can assume that Mourinho was in part talking about City’s perceived weakness in the air, giving away an average 3.5cm per player to the giants of United. Which must have made City’s opener infuriating in the extreme. After 15 minutes of neat interplay, the breakthrough came via a long punt from Kolarov. The defenders’ union on Sky Sports pointed at Mkhitaryan for dawdling rather than putting pressure on the Serb, but he was near the corner flag, and there were two more major mistakes to be made before the ball hit the net.

First Bailly. After giving him the big-up in midweek, it was inevitable that he would then drop a clanger. Caught unawares by the punt, he did not even jump with Kelechi Iheanacho, who headed the ball onwards like Niall Quinn in his pomp. If Bailly was poor, his defensive partner was poorer, with Blind being entirely taken out of the game by one touch from De Bruyne. Not for the last time. The pairing that had looked so solid against Southampton, Bournemouth and Hull was exposed by the simplest of moves against City.

 

* There are some players that just exude calmness and you can almost start celebrating when they find themselves in a one-on-one situation. Step forward De Bruyne, who must have ice in his veins because his finish is as cool against United in a Manchester derby as against Crystal Palace in the League Cup. It’s difficult to describe a goal from the Belgian without using the word ‘aplomb’. In 46 games in all competitions for City since his arrival, he has contributed 17 goals and 15 assists. Would City have slipped out of the title race last season if De Bruyne had remained fit? We are firmly in the ‘no’ camp on this one. The boy is very, very special. Silly Jose.

 

* Had you watched that first half having not followed the Premier League for the past five years and been asked to pin-point the current most expensive player in world football, you would have probably offered three or four names before you got to that of Paul Pogba, with De Bruyne’s name and number rolling off the tongue first. It’s not that Pogba was terrible – there were a couple of driving runs where you whispered ‘yes, that’s it’ – but there just wasn’t enough. Inevitably, Pogba will be judged in the context of his transfer fee and in his first big, big game for United, he came up woefully short. United will undoubtedly be a better team for his arrival, but will they ever be able to say ‘yes, we won that massive game because of Paul Pogba’? For £89m, you probably should.

 

* That goal from De Bruyne put Jose’s United behind for the first time this season. Would there be a reaction? In short…no. It was still awful. It was still sloppy. It was still aimless. The only question became whether City could be decisive enough to turn their total domination into the lead they deserved. Mourinho praised his side’s “spirit” after the game, but it was “spirit” in defeat because United did not react when they went behind and there were still 75 minutes of football to play.

At this point we are duty-bound to praise Rooney for ‘trying to make things happen’. Which basically means tearing around, chasing balls, flying into tackles for which he really should be booked sooner, attempting to start a fight with Guardiola, taking all the set-pieces and appealing every time the ball hits an opposition player on any part of his body in the box.

By the end of the game he had lost possession more times than anybody else on the pitch (23), which – granted – only happens when you are ‘trying to make things happen’. But for real influence, check out De Bruyne, nominally playing in the same position as Rooney at the opening whistle but making a lot less noise while having a lot more impact.

 

* City’s second came after 36 minutes and Blind once again has to take the largest portion of the blame. Both he and Lingard went one way while De Bruyne went the other way, gifting the best player on the pitch enough time to fashion a shot that hit the post. The sharp Iheanacho reacted first and put away the rebound, but he would have been offside were it not for the ambling Blind, still wondering how he had ended up so far away from both the ball and the Belgian.

We reluctantly put Iheanacho in our worst Manchester XI this week and yet we remain massive fans of the Nigerian, who would already be a 20-goal man at any other club but Manchester City behind any other striker but Sergio Aguero. He has scored nine Premier League goals from just 13 shots on target. Drink that in and start with your entirely pointless Iheanacho v Rashford arguments.

 

* We need to talk about Claudio Bravo. Pep Guardiola called it “one of the best performances I have ever seen” and we confess that for 41 minutes, we were falling a little bit in love with the Chilean, largely because he kept waving his defenders away while 25 yards from his goal as if to say ‘f*** off, this is my domain’. And then a minute later, Gary Neville was screaming “CAN HE CATCH?” after he had dropped the first high ball lofted into the City box.

We suspect that the goalkeeper with Champions League, La Liga and Copa America medals can indeed catch, but the tabloids and the internet will have you believe that a footballer with over 100 caps is in fact some sort of clown and that Sir Joe Hart of Shrewsbury would never make such a mistake. There’s no doubt that Bravo endured a difficult day but it’s utter nonsense to dismiss him as a Premier League goalkeeper on the back of 50 dodgy minutes. Remember Patrice Evra’s United debut every time you are tempted to make snap judgments based on one game.

Should United have had a penalty for his challenge on Rooney? Probably. Should that be allowed to mask what was a rotten performance from United? Absolutely not.

 

* Had United gone on to win or even draw this game, Mourinho would have been hailed as some kind of genius for his half-time substitutions, but we would not want to let him off the hook so easily. Having set the pattern of the game with his original line-up – with the goal to make it 2-1 a gift that Zlatan accepted with his usual grace – not making changes would have been negligent. Marcus Rashford was an obvious choice on the left, Rooney was shifted right and presumably told to deliver cross after cross like the closing stages of the Hull game, and Ander Herrera was slotted into midfield with Pogba and Marouane Fellaini instructed to push forward and use their height advantage.

United were suddenly playing higher up the pitch and City were rattled. After Lingard’s 12 touches in 45 minutes, Rashford reached half that number in five. Suddenly Bacary Sagna and John Stones had a job to do, and for a minute it looked like they might struggle with that job. It was 2-1 to City but it was United who had the initiative, boosted by fresh legs and presumably sore ears after a half-time bollocking.

 

* The worry for United should be that City so easily destroyed that momentum with one substitution, Fernando coming on for Iheanacho with De Bruyne being pushed into the striker’s role. Suddenly it was easy for City once again. On Sky they remarked that City had been in “overdrive in the first half but were now not getting out of second gear” but saying that about a side that had just put together 20-odd passes when leading 2-1 is a tad misleading. The onus was not on City to push and push but on United to wrest control back again.

The counter-attack once again became their only real outlet, with Rashford being denied by the stray run and boot of an offside Zlatan. Fernando thwarted another attack as the game settled back into the rhythm of City enjoying possession but United looking dangerous on the break. At this point Neville was saying that it has been “end to end all game” as if we had all agreed to forget that United had looked so utterly rotten for 42 minutes.

 

* We finally saw Leroy Sane and liked what we saw. Within two minutes he had been decisive in breaking and then seeing the clever run of De Bruyne, who hit the post for the second time in the game, and then dispossessing Paul Pogba on the edge of his own box. Tricky, classy and combative. We are officially intrigued. City are top of the table and we have barely seen Sane and not yet seen Ilkay Gundogan, who may well have watched this game and wondered exactly where he fits in. Instead of Fernandinho? He was brilliant and tireless. Instead of David Silva? He gained posession more than anybody else on the pitch in an indefatigable display. Remember that this was the game when he was going to be bullied by the twin monoliths of Pogba and Fellaini.

 

* We laughed in Thursday’s Mediawatch at The Guardian’s Jamie Jackson choosing Kolarov at centre-half in a combined Manchester XI. He might want to revise that now and bring in City’s actual centre-half Otamendi. Clearly seen as a weak link by Mourinho – how else can we explain how much space he was afforded on the ball? – he was actually immense. Five tackles, six interceptions, five clearances and a 91% pass completion rate are the pertinent stats but our eyes gave us more compelling evidence – excellent in possession and a warrior in the final, frantic minutes. He somehow got tarred with the same brush as Eliaquim Mangala last season but Otamendi could once again be an excellent defender under an excellent coach.

 

* The onslaught of those last few minutes may have created a short-term sense of optimism amongst Manchester United fans, who can feel like they were unlucky not to have forced an equaliser as they threw high ball after high ball into City’s box. But in time, maybe after watching the game again, they may remember just how easily they were destroyed in that opening 42 minutes. And they may be a little worried. It’s only early September, it’s only the fourth game of the season, and there would be no surprise if United won their next six games at a canter, but there will be a little niggle: It was the biggest game of the season so far and the manager made the wrong call while the players wilted. Is showing “spirit” in defeat what United expected from a Mourinho side? Is that a worthwhile return from having 40% possession at home?

 

Sarah Winterburn

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