16 Conclusions: Manchester United 2-0 Manchester City

Date published: Monday 9th March 2020 8:40

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1) While the entire population is busy stocking up on toilet paper, it might well be worth replenishing the shelves with servings of humble pie. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is the third manager to ever do the league double over Pep Guardiola; the P.E teacher just treated the headmaster to a compelling lesson.

The CliffsNotes tell enough of a story: Man United started slowly, found their stride midway through and managed the game masterfully from then on. Manchester City had a better opening period before tripping over their own shoelaces and trying but failing to make up the ground.

Solskjaer deserves every bit of praise – grovelling or otherwise – coming to him. United attacked with more purpose and intent and defended with more unity, determination and organisation. Only one team carried out anything resembling a plan.

“And Solskjaer has won it!” was the line of commentary that accompanied the greatest moment in United history. The man who delivered the Treble has played an even bigger part in securing a memorable double.

 

2) The defeat at home to Burnley on January 22 was a stark nadir for Solskjaer. Man United had not been beaten by a better side but were exposed by one that was more than the sum of its composite parts; a team that knew precisely what to do at all times. It was in sharp contrast to United’s 11 individuals just happening to wear the same shirt.

Little over six weeks later, the rehabilitation continues apace. United were a consummate unit after a troubled first ten minutes or so, working together towards the same goal instead of against each other in pursuit of something different. They are unbeaten in their last ten games, with eight clean sheets in the process. United were aimless and Solskjaer hapless only recently. Team and manager both seem so assured now.

 

3) As reductive as it is to link that renaissance to a single player, the evidence is stacking up. To reiterate a line used recently on these pages: it is probably worth recording United’s history as Before Bruno and After Fernandes, such is the difference.

This was not even close to his best game. Much of it passed the Portuguese by as he soon became surplus to defensive requirements. His influence waned as City started to hoard possession. But his objective had long been completed by the time he was substituted; Fernandes made a bigger impact in key moments than any other player.

He has raised the standard, too. Man United always knew their preferred destination, but they needed Fernandes to show them the route and the shortcuts.

 

4) For Guardiola, this is a defeat that perhaps means little in a more narrow context. He suggested before the game that the Premier League was third on a list of City priorities, the subtext being that it would likely have ranked fourth before last weekend. The title race was run months ago, the gap to fourth is nine points and league position will be inconsequential anyway if the European ban is upheld.

But there are wider implications. The warrior spirit that City found in the Bernabeu was lost in 90 minutes at Old Trafford. They were kept at arm’s length by, at least in modern terms, their younger and more callow sibling. It is cause for at least mild embarrassment and introspection.

Perhaps it will have no effect on their runs in the other two competitions. But the fact that Guardiola has now lost more league games in this campaign than in any other throughout his entire managerial career cannot simply be ignored. Even if they win the Champions League, there is considerable work to do this summer.

 

5) The early stages of the game were tinged with individual mistakes. Stray passes from Oleksandr Zinchenko and Ilkay Gundogan gave Man United brief moments of promise, while the hosts returned the favour with interest. Luke Shaw struggled under pressure from Sergio Aguero to facilitate City’s first chance, Brandon Williams allowed a misplaced pass to simply bounce off him in the area and Harry Maguire was remarkably chaotic in leading by example.

It underlined that, somehow, two teams who were separated by 33 points last season, are genuinely of a similar standard within less than a year. As much of that is down to United raising their game over the past two months as it is City, in Raheem Sterling’s words, “slacking”.

City have a far higher ceiling of performance, both as a collective and individually. But they have a far greater tendency than most elite sides to collapse through the floor, too.

 

6) For all their possession, City were worryingly blunt. That Aguero was by far their best player made that all the more curious; he drew a mistake from Shaw and then threatened to force Maguire into early retirement. But he was leading a press that too few teammates sought to follow.

A tame Sterling effort was City’s only shot until the 56th minute. Aside from Aguero (two) and Sterling (four) no other player had a touch in the United penalty area in the first half. The circumstances had obviously changed and hindsight is often blinding, but Riyad Mahrez had six in the half an hour he was afforded. He should have started.

 

7) Perhaps the point is more that Sterling shouldn’t have. The 25-year-old has been in dreadful form in 2020 and it is instructive that his only effective performance came against Real when he was introduced from the bench.

No player struggled more for the absence of Kevin De Bruyne, and thus the lack of either a productive passing option in the centre or someone with the vision to spot any of his runs. Sterling should never have completed the full 90 minutes; indeed, it was as if he didn’t play at all.

 

8) Not that playing against Aaron Wan-Bissaka is straightforward. Sterling was so overawed and inhibited that he sought solace on the opposite flank, although still to no avail.

Before then, Wan-Bissaka summarily domineered his opponent. His defending is often taken for granted and framed negatively due to his relative attacking shortcomings, but he has an almost unique suffocating quality. He gives wingers absolutely no space to breathe or time to think. Eight tackles – at least twice as many as any other player – is patently ludicrous.

And he was great going forward. Only two players completed more dribbles. But it is getting to the stage where Wan-Bissaka is starting to subvert the art of defending; it won’t be long until teams double up with wingers on United’s right not to expose or overwhelm him, but to keep him occupied.

 

9) The presumption was that any United breakthrough would come from a counter-attack. The visitors were throwing aimless fists in the hope of registering a couple of body shots; United were only interested in landing a sucker punch. Each of their numerous chances leading up to the goal had followed that pattern of absorbing pressure, getting players behind the ball, starving as much space as possible then striking at pace against a haphazard City defence.

It could not have been much more different. Not only in the execution – wonderful ingenuity and intricacy from both Fernandes and Martial – but in the preamble. United seemed to realise that the opponent was vulnerable, that they did not have to set up camp in their own area. From the moment Daniel James burst down the right to win a free-kick from Nicolas Otamendi there was a sudden clarity.

In the six minutes leading up to the goal, Man United dominated. They did not sit back and wait for gaps to appear; they took the initiative by force. From the 24th minute to the 30th, they had more shots (3) than City had completed passes (2). They were playing – and beating – the champions at their own game.

 

10) The flipside to that is that City were being completely overrun. They were making more unforced errors than someone staring across the net from Novak Djokovic. And Man United, as good as they clearly are, should not be able to strike that level of fear and nervousness into a supposedly elite team.

It was startling to watch James force Otamendi into backing off to the extent that he almost took a seat in the stands. It was staggering to see Martial simultaneously shrug off Fernandinho and pluck a Williams pass out of the air before testing Ederson. It was worth wondering how this side had ever achieved such astonishing brilliance when this was the shared response to facing a modicum of pressure.

Their inability to find a foothold both before and immediately after the goal, when Fernandes could have doubled United’s lead with a header, was typified by one statistic: neither Bernardo nor Gundogan had a single touch of the ball from the 24th minute to the 34th. They were bystanders for that period, passengers on a sinking ship.

 

11) Man United maintained their levels until half-time in search of a second goal. One attack saw Fred play a sharp pass into James on the right and continue his run before receiving the ball back. Rodri’s lack of attempt to stop Fred was compounded by Otamendi’s woeful effort. The Brazilian jinked inside and fell to the ground in the penalty area, only to be booked by Mike Dean.

Further replays showed clear contact. Whether it was enough to constitute a foul is subjective, but the decision to hand out a yellow card for diving was objectively wrong.

So, too, the decision to flag Aguero offside early in the second half. The striker scored when put through but United had effectively – and understandably – stopped playing due to the referee’s whistle. VAR confirmed the call was correct but it was as marginal as they come.

Both calls will likely be framed by some as instances of VAR’s poor implementation. If anything, the issues were because of its muddled directives. The yellow for the first could only be overturned if a penalty was awarded instead, so while replays showed Fred clearly hadn’t dived, it was neither “clear” nor “obvious” that it was a foul. And there was no benefit in the linesman flagging for such a close offside when every goal is checked anyway; it was a few centimetres away from becoming farcical.

VAR is here to stay, and referees should be pitied for having to completely readjust everything they have learned over years in their profession to accommodate it. But it often seems that the insistence on not ‘re-refereeing’ games overrides the need to make the right call. While supporters in the stadium are not kept informed enough, the dubious lines on the offside replay show that TV viewers have been allowed to peek too far behind the curtain. Both horribly undermines the on-pitch officials. There is a balance to strike.

 

12) Fred, by the way, was brilliant. Matic was great alongside him and Shaw, save for those tentative first few steps, continued his fine form. But Fred was again the catalyst.

He always seems to make the right decision. The execution is inevitably lacking sometimes but there is a purpose about him that automatically raises the rest of the team. Fred seems to know his role better than any other player: it was striking just how often he played the ball quick, often even first-time, into Fernandes’s feet to break the lethargic and disjointed press. Roy Keane ain’t laughing now. Or ever.

 

13) There was still an air of inevitability, a certainty that City would respond after half-time. They had to. This couldn’t possibly be it.

Yet there was Ederson, miscontrolling a routine Cancelo back pass to almost allow Martial to double United’s lead four minutes after the restart. It was a fine sliding tackle from the goalkeeper to prevent disaster but Man United, with Fernandes having an effort blocked soon after, were still the agitators.

Maybe that shouldn’t have been too surprising. City had won just one of their last 100 away Premier League games when trailing at half-time. It is an astonishing record that doesn’t happen by coincidence. They are brilliant at their best when riding a wave of momentum but few sides are quite so ineffective when the tide turns. That is on both the players and the manager.

 

14) Man United continued to react better to the situation. They adjusted seamlessly to a counter-attacking role, James testing Ederson while Phil Foden had City’s only second-half attempt of note heading into the closing stages. The teenager was anonymous; Guardiola might be justified in warning not to expect too much too soon.

Starting wide on the right, the teenager became part of one of City’s main problems. Between him, Aguero and Sterling, City’s three forwards made no tackles or interceptions all game. Unable to force turnovers of possession high up the pitch beyond United errors in the first ten minutes, City instead toiled and struggled to find a way through a compact defensive unit. The only players that offered something vaguely different – Mahrez and Gabriel Jesus – were given just 30 minutes to make an impact.

 

15) The pièce de résistance came in stoppage time. Scott McTominay capitalised on a third Ederson mistake of the evening with a fine long-range effort to make it 2-0.

Lost amid the celebrations was the role played by Odion Ighalo. His hold-up play was exquisite, relieving the pressure on the halfway line before laying the ball off to Fred. The Nigerian has already justified his signing.

 

16) The entire reason that deal was even necessary should not be forgotten. The loss of Marcus Rashford was supposed to derail United’s season but it has caused only a slight delay. After losses to both Liverpool and Burnley without their talisman, United have been excellent.

And it shouldn’t be forgotten that this relative success continues to come without their most expensive player. It is far from outlandish to suggest that United have outgrown Paul Pogba as much as he has them, as much as that is physically impossible.

It would be hugely encouraging if United were making progress with every player available. This is being done without one of their key cogs and with the spectre of another constantly looming. They will still be desperate for Rashford to return, not to rescue them but to see what he and they can achieve together at something approaching their best.

Matt Stead

 

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