16 Conclusions: Manchester City 3-1 Manchester United

Steven Chicken

1) It is utterly remarkable that, with 12 games of the season done, we find ourselves with three unbeaten teams separated by just four points at the top of the table, and yet one of them already looks like they’re going to run away with it all.

After an unprecedently successful campaign last year, Manchester City have somehow started this season even better. They have already played Manchester United, Tottenham, Liverpool and Arsenal in the Premier League this season, yet have dropped just four of a possible 36 points.

It should be boring. It should be miserable for everyone but City fans to watch. With the intense scrutiny their business affairs have quite rightly been under, they should be the most despised team in England.

But when they crank out performances like this, and score goals like the ones they did – especially the third – it becomes really bloody hard to hate them. When it comes to the big games, at least, there is no side you would rather watch than Manchester City, and if you disagree then I’m not sure we can be friends.


2) We really want to talk more about City and get to that goal, but first we need to start by putting their opponents under a bit of scrutiny.

With Paul Pogba missing through an injury he picked up in Turin, Mourinho took the opportunity to revert to type and favour three-ply steel in his midfield through Nemanja Matic, Marouane Fellaini and Ander Herrera, behind a trio of pacey players in his attack in Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial.

That meant there was no room in the side for either Alexis Sanchez or Juan Mata, despite the latter’s goalscoring showing off the bench and match-turning second-half performance in a pure number 10 role against Chelsea last month.

Unsurprisingly, this left United looking hopelessly short of a reliable midfielder playmaker, resulting in Herrera losing possession on multiple occasions under pressure from City’s superbly-executed press. In the 12 minutes leading up to City’s opener, United had attempted just 11 passes, only five of which found their man. They had touched the ball in the final third just four times; Sterling alone took five touches in the build-up to the opening goal.

You can have all the pace you like up front, but if your players can’t even get the ball out of their own half, you’re going to struggle.


3) The plan to starve the City front line by packing the midfield with various shades of shithouse looked especially naïve in the opening ten minutes or so, with the hosts finding it all to easy to find space between United’s back four and midfield three.

Twice inside the first four minutes, City’s pair of Silvas were able to show up United’s midfield as being more immobile than a Lazio scoresheet through the simple expedient of a change of pace.

First Bernardo Silva was able to shrug off Matic in such fashion before shooting wide from outside the box, then David Silva did superbly to get in behind Ashley Young but was unable to get the ball out from under his feet. United can’t say they weren’t warned about what would come next.


4) It’s a shame that so much of the newspaper guff has obscured what a wonderful season Raheem Sterling is having: he has five goals and three assists in his last four Premier League games at the Etihad, and has consistently been one of City’s best players. Discovering a long-absent goalscoring touch for England isn’t too shabby either for the 23-year-old.

So perhaps unsurprisingly – especially given that he was directly up against a panicky-looking Ashley Young – Sterling often served as City’s outlet, with the majority of their attacks (46.7%) going his way rather than out to Riyad Mahrez on the right (27.2%)


5) It was from such a position that City took the lead. Once again it was too easy for David Silva and Sergio Aguero to get touches in between the United lines, allowing them to work the ball to Sterling. His excellent cross to the far post was turned back across goal by Bernardo Silva, giving David Silva an easy finish.

David Silva has long been lauded at the Etihad, and will surely join the pantheon of all-time Premier League greats once the time comes for the 32-year-old to move on or retire.

But Bernardo Silva has had a little bit of a more difficult time, struggling throughout last season to impose himself on the team and make himself an automatic first choice for the big games.

Any doubts about him should now have been banished altogether, however. Bernardo Silva was in excellent form here, delivering the final pass for both the first and final goals and playing a key part in City’s second. It is on this form that he, Sterling and the evergreen Aguero and David Silva are keeping Gabriel Jesus and Leroy Sane’s opportunities confined to less dangerous opponents.


6) Mourinho’s immediate response to the opener was to push Lingard and Martial back to wide midfield roles to turn a straight 4-3-3 into more of a 4-5-1. It had the intended effect – City’s repeated eviscerations were immediately and significantly abated for the rest of the half – but it was an embarrassing switch for such an experienced manager to have to make.

City are not a team that springs tactical surprises on you: this was the exact same starting line-up that played both in last month’s 0-0 draw at Anfield and the 1-0 win over Spurs at Wembley. That their nominal central midfielders push up to effectively double up the wingers and form a front five when in possession is common knowledge.

So why Mourinho chose such a lumbering midfield to leave his full-backs so exposed was a mystery. That he was forced to correct it so early was a huge indictment of the United manager, and yet more ammunition to the accusation that he has fallen out of touch with what makes modern, attacking sides like City so successful.


7) All that said, it was clear that having got it wrong, United needed to make a change to their personnel in the first half. Herrera was utterly dreadful, and it was no surprise to see him hooked when Mata was finally introduced; it was surprising that it took until the 73rd minute for that to happen.

Mourinho has not been averse to a snap decision in the past: during his first spell at Chelsea he once made all three of his substitutions at half time. Towards the end of his second spell, he once put on Matic at the break, only to take him off again 27 minutes later. And in January this year, he took off Henrikh Mkhitaryan at half time during an FA Cup win over Derby. Yet Herrera remained on.

The effect on team morale and psychology renders the taboo around first-half substitutions understandable, at least, but surely footballers at this level are capable of recognising when they are simply having a bad day and admitting the team would be better off if their poor showing were nipped in the bud? And surely that’s doubly true when you find yourselves 2-0 down in a derby shortly after half time?


8) Just to rub salt into the wounds of United’s labouring midfield, Fernandinho was again excellent for Manchester City, looking composed in possession and indomitable off the ball.

Indeed, it was he who was largely responsible for City doubling their lead shortly after the break, catching Lingard in possession superbly and quickly recycling the ball to Bernardo Silva.

With United forced onto the back foot by Fernandinho’s excellent reading and quick thinking, it was a matter of routine for City to cut through the United defence: Silva found Aguero, who played a one-two with Mahrez before smashing the ball in at David De Gea’s near post.

City rightly get the plaudits for such lovely linkup play, but that front five would not be possible without a player of Fernandinho’s quality covering for them so ably.


9) It took Mourinho ten minutes to respond to going 2-0 down by making an attacking substitution, hauling off Lingard to make way for Romelu Lukaku.

Just 29 seconds later, the Belgian made his impact, although that had more to do with a rash bit of goalkeeping from Ederson. Anthony Martial slipped a wonderful pass into the United box for Lukaku to run onto, and despite the presence of three City defenders inside the penalty box, the Brazilian charged off his line and felled Lukaku.

It was almost a frame-for-frame replay of the penalty Ederson gave away against Southampton last week: the exact same pass, the exact same run, the exact same foul.

Such moments are, perhaps, the trade-off you make when you sign a bold, confident sweeper-keeper – Liverpool’s Alisson has also been guilty of a couple of similar crimes, coming wide from his goal when there was really no need to do so. But it is a failing Pep Guardiola will surely want to work on with his own Brazilian.


10) United came from behind to beat Juventus in midweek, Bournemouth last weekend, and Newcastle on October 6. They also came close to doing so against Chelsea last month, but for Ross Barkley’s 96th-minute equaliser. Only Arsenal (9) have won more points from losing positions than United (7).

So despite City’s dominance, you would understand a few frayed nerves at the Etihad after Martial tucked away the penalty to make it 2-1 – especially after the way United shocked City from behind to ruin their coronation last season.

But on the flipside, Manchester City had trailed in a league game only once this season, having fallen behind at Wolves back in August before an Aymeric Laporte equaliser gave them a point. In the nine games in which they have taken a lead, City had ended up winning nine; that is now a perfect ten, and accounts for the two-point lead City hold over Liverpool at the top of the Premier League table after the Reds let their lead over Arsenal slip last Saturday.


11) Right, let’s do this thing.

On 83:45, Mendy took the ball from Fernandinho’s tackle on Lukaku. The ball snaked out to the right wing, back into the middle, out of the left, back again to Sterling in the middle, then back to the right, all the way to the back four, and then suddenly, the move sparked into life with substitute Ilkay Gundogan’s surge forward into space.

He played the ball to Sterling and continued the run to perfection, putting himself in exactly the right place to easily slot home Bernardo Silva’s cross, with Matic once again idling along around the penalty spot and nowhere near Gundogan.

The ball hit the net on 85:39, nearly two full minutes and 43 passes after the move had begun. It was an incredible, unbelievable goal from a team that has already set itself extremely high standards in incredible and unbelievable.


12) In case you were wondering: yes, every City outfielder made at least one pass in that build-up. From most to least: Gundogan, Fernandinho (6); Laporte, Bernardo Silva, David Silva (5); Stones, Sterling (4); Walker, Mendy (3) and Sane (1).

There’s no real shame in not being at City’s level, but if United had been utterly outclassed early in the game, this amounted to nothing less than an abject humiliation.

Dynamic yet patient, incisive yet smart, energetic yet calm; City are everything Manchester United are not, and those two minutes made that contrast look starker than ever.


13) People will not be happy if we let this analysis go by without talking about the revelations made by Der Spiegel.

However much a club might disagree with competition rules like Financial Fair Play, it is incumbent on them to abide by them. If most other clubs are doing so and you are not, you’re not simply taking advantage of having greater wealth or a higher profile; you are outright cheating.

City are by no means the only club in Europe to have faced such allegations, merely the most recent; but it is right that people should raise questions about it, even if the driving force behind those questions is rooted in little more than nakedly jealous tribalism and whataboutery.

Money is a huge part of what determines which clubs are successful and which aren’t; the clear correlation between wages spend and achievement demonstrates that very clearly.

But it is not everything: the travails of Real Madrid and Bayern Munich this season and Chelsea in two of the last three Premier League campaigns demonstrate that. And when you see a team start a game with ten minutes like City had, and then end it with a wonderful, utterly wonderful goal like their third, you can’t just put that down to money. Money does not coach players or implement tactics or automatically instil that level of confidence.

For the good of the game, we need to keep our eyes open to financial doping, but we should also be smart enough to give credit where it’s due and admit that City are also flipping brilliant. You can’t react to such a showing with a roll of the eyes and a declaration that they bought all those passes.


14) Mourinho said after the game: “I think it’s not about the performance at all. It is a performance with mistakes, and we paid for the mistakes. All the three goals are our mistakes, and against a team like Manchester City, make mistakes and you are punished.”

I’m not sure quite how Mourinho can spin it that mistakes are not part of a performance. Individual errors will happen, yes, but this is not a young, inexperienced side; three of their starters were in their 30s, and a further three are 28 or 29 years old.

He continued: “I have told already the players that one thing is to win two matches at home 6-0 [sic] and be fresh and be relaxed, not just physically but also mentally; another thing is two matches away where the second one is Juventus where you fight like animals and it’s not just the physical effort, it’s also the mental effort the pressure before the game, the pressure during the game, and I think some of the boys felt it a little bit.”

Though undeniably accurate, that analysis ignores how rotten United were throughout the first half against Bournemouth, just as they were against Newcastle; and that they were outclassed throughout much of the game against Juventus.

To Mourinho’s credit, he did say he didn’t want to use it as an excuse (then why bring it up?), but you can’t take the kudos for claiming a snatch of comeback victories and then complain that the effort of doing so negatively affects you in the next game.


15) United were never hugely likely to win this game, but the nature of the performance after their turnaround in Turin makes it feel very much like one step forward, one step back.

After a challenging run of games, Mourinho will take some solace in an international break being followed by games against Crystal Palace, Young Boys and Southampton. But he will also know that his margin for error in those games is very slim indeed if the weekly barrage of criticism he and his side experienced in August and September is to stay in the past.


16) City, meanwhile, will return from the break facing a potential tricky (but still eminently winnable) run of games against West Ham, Lyon, Bournemouth, Watford and Chelsea. They will surely hold no fear – even if it might make things a little bit more interesting if they were to suffer an unexpected hiccup.


Steven Chicken is on Twitter

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