Manchester United were deemed to be back in some degree of control after winning at Spurs, but Manchester City showed them what a naive idea that was.
1) There have been plenty of complaints over the years about the scheduling of Saturday lunchtime matches, that kicking off so early on a weekend doesn’t always make for an edifying spectacle. But on this particular Saturday, the lethargy only really seemed to apply to one of the teams playing.
Manchester City had a home European game during the week while Manchester United had to fly to Italy and back. But while there may be a case for saying that the team that had to spend ten hours on an aeroplane during the week could be slightly more fatigued than the team that didn’t, this alone cannot explain the absolute paucity of Manchester United’s performance in a second successive home match against elite opponents, and team against whom victory over means considerably more than just three points.
2) Before kick-off on Sky Sports, Roy Keane went off on a bit of a rant about “passion” and the players “wanting it”. Under normal circumstances, this would result in a roll of the eyes and a pithy comment about ‘real football men’, but on this occasion there was more than a grain of truth behind his words. Manchester United played this game at times as though in a daze, like a team that had only just woken up.
3) Manchester City were clearly not in the same hurry that Liverpool had been in during their Old Trafford trip a couple of weeks ago. United even had the first chance, a Harry Maguire header from a free kick that flashed high and wide, but there was a message for United in this miss: Maguire was put off his header by the attention of City’s defenders. This sort of pressure was almost entirely absent from Manchester United’s own defensive performance.
4) Barely a couple of minutes after Maguire’s miss City had the lead, and it was a goal which summed up the vast gulf between these two teams. Kyle Walker’s cross from the right found Ilkay Gungodan, but his contact with the ball was wayward. But never mind; when a defence is as static as United’s there’s always likely to be a second opportunity soon enough, and Joao Cancelo’s return cross was turned past his own goalkeeper by Eric Bailly.
Bailly had been excellent for Manchester United away to Atalanta in the week, but against Manchester City he cut a pale shadow of that performance and was withdrawn at half-time to make way for Jadon Sancho. United had started the match cautiously, as though they didn’t wish to repeat the mistakes of their last home against Liverpool, but conceding such a soft goal so early on put them immediately on the back foot and undermined every preparation they had made.
5) The commentary from Gary Neville in the five or ten minutes after the goal was telling. “Shell-shocked”. “Panicked”. “Not interested”. City started to control the game, putting their foot on the ball, with their fluidity and movement showing the absence of either in their opponents. It was difficult not to look at that first ten or 15 minutes and wonder how on earth United even could get back into this game.
6) It took 25 minutes to get the hint of an answer to that question. United finally got the ball on the ground and started moving it around, pinning City back to the edge of their penalty area. It was the first time they’d made the City defence sweat, and it almost bore a dividend. Luke Shaw hasn’t been putting in too many accomplished defensive performances recently, but he does remain an attacking threat from dead balls from wide positions. This time he swung the ball over from the left for Cristiano Ronaldo, whose first-time shot was parried by Ederson. The ball bounced loose for Mason Greenwood, who reacted a little too slowly and put the rebound wide. This turned out to be United’s best passage of play of the entire match.
6) The one grim parallel between the first half of the Liverpool game and the first half of this one was how much space United’s opponents found themselves in on the left-hand side of the pitch. United were playing a three-man central defence, but Aaron Wan-Bissaka found himself tracking inside to effectively become a fourth central defender, and City made hay in the space in the gaps he left.
On one occasion, Wan-Bissaka lost possession to Cancelo inside his own half, but loped back at such a pedestrian pace that the ball was already inside the Manchester United penalty area by the time he caught up with it. The ball didn’t end up in the goal on that occasion, but this happened three or four times throughout the half.
Wan-Bissaka is a superb athlete. This much should really go without saying. So what’s the issue with him here? Why was he playing as though he didn’t know where he should be playing, and why was he so slow to recover when he found himself out of possession? All eyes train back on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
7) The second Manchester City goal seemed to show this lackadaisical attitude again in spades. Cancelo’s cross from the left cut through the middle of six Manchester United defenders, each of whom was completely static, as though waiting for somebody else to assume some responsibility and actually clear the ball. Instead, it squirted through all of them and Bernardo Silva turned it in at the far post, with David De Gea having apparently misjudged it too.
It was a strange goal, one of those where no-one seemed to have even noticed that it had crossed the line, and there was a delay of several seconds before the Manchester City supporters at the other end of the pitch worked out that it had squeezed in. In their previous match, Manchester United scored in stoppage-time at the end of both the first and second halves. This time they conceded.
8) With United having taken off Bailly for Sancho at half-time, City seemed happy enough to play the first 20 minutes of the second half like Scooby Doo holding an angry Scrappy Doo at arm’s length. There was plenty of space for City to exploit if they got the ball, but United did at least manage to keep possession for long periods, which is more than they’d managed for most of the first half. The crowd did get behind the United players throughout this period and the noise inside Old Trafford did start to rise, but by the midway point the grumblings of discontent were starting to become audible again.
9) We need to talk about the condition of the England players, because it is surely no coincidence that so many of them are playing so far below the levels that we might expect. Harry Maguire still doesn’t look fit and Luke Shaw looks exhausted, while Jack Grealish didn’t even play after a mixed start to the season. When we consider the fall off in the performance of England players at other clubs as well, it looks very much as though they are suffering from the punishing schedule that they’ve been through over the last year and a half.
10) Having got their foot back on the ball, City seemed happy enough to push and prod at United and little more. Yet they still created the best of the chances. Foden found himself in space on the left and hit the base of the post. John Stones tried to swivel on the ball from six yards out and shot wide when he might have scored. Cancelo was free on the left – have you noticed a theme here yet? – and crossed across the middle of the six yard area, but no-one could get on the end of it.
11) By the closing stages of the match, the pathetic fallacy of pouring rain was in full effect, and the only people chanting Solskjaer’s name were the Manchester City supporters. One statistic stood out more than any other: Manchester United had more shots on target at their own goal than they did at City’s.
12) Manchester City didn’t score five, as Liverpool did a couple of weeks ago, but in some respects this was just as comprehensive a win. They controlled the game completely from the very early stages, and when they did sit back and allow United to come at them, the home side had practically nothing to offer. Joao Cancelo was particularly impressive, but goodness, Manchester United made it easy for him.
Coupled with the defensive frailty that was so evident with the two cheaply conceded goals, it was clear just how far Manchester United are from being capable of challenging teams like City and Liverpool over the course of a season. Even though they remain in fifth place in the table, Manchester United are sliding towards mid-table irrelevance and there doesn’t seem to be anyone within the club who is prepared or able to arrest this decline. They’re now nine points off leaders Chelsea after just eleven matches and they’ve only taken one point at home since Ronaldo’s debut against Newcastle, and that was almost two months ago.
13) When a team plays as badly as Manchester United did in this match, it can be difficult to lavish praise upon their opponents, but it should be added that Manchester City were excellent. They’d been a little off-colour of late, and the question marks that had hung over their failure to replace Sergio Aguero during the summer felt more justified after they failed to score against Crystal Palace and West Ham.
But against Brighton in the Premier League and Bruges in the Champions League they’ve got their goalscoring eye back in, and the early goal in this match will have stopped insecurities from creeping back into the players’ minds. City knew how to hurt United – by exploiting the gaps behind United’s leaden-footed wing-backs and getting the ball quickly and effectively into their penalty area. But there were few fireworks on display, here. This was a beautifully controlled performance, from Manchester City.
14) Solskjaer’s job surely has to be considered to be back on the line again. The warnings were there against Atalanta, with all headlines going to the late drama and little comment on the distinctly underwhelming 89 minutes that preceded it. But now he heads into the international break with a cloud hanging over him, again.
International breaks can be a blessed relief for under-fire managers, offering a little respite and an opportunity to regroup while attention is focused elsewhere. But for many managers in trouble, the break is a cause for concern. All eyes will now be focused back on whether Solskjaer will still be in a job by the time of United’s next Premier League match at Watford in a couple of weeks. If he is, this is a game that United should win comfortably (in theory), but their next two after that are against Chelsea and Arsenal, who currently sit at the top of the Premier League’s form table.
Should United perform in those two matches in the same way that they played against Liverpool and Manchester City, the speculation will reach another crescendo. But does anybody in senior management have the nerve to actually grasp these issues by the scruff of the neck and deal with them as they need to be dealt with? It doesn’t feel like there is at the moment.
15) United’s win at Spurs can now be seen for what it was: a base line performance against a team that was crumbling even quicker than United had been, and as a false dawn which was enough to deflect criticism for a short while. But this could only ever be a temporary sticking plaster for United’s ongoing structural issues. This fish continues to rot from the head down.
16) It wouldn’t be difficult to believe that, having seen this result, Antonio Conte had a small smile to himself. It’s fairly commonly understood that Conte would have accepted, had United made him an offer, but instead they decided to keep Ole at the wheel and now Conte is at The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium trying to sort out that hot mess, instead. Meanwhile, Manchester United are where they are, still scraping through against teams that they should be beating comortably and floundering against those who they consider to be their contemporaries. It’s a mess, and it’s a mess that bleeds right the way through the club.