In a perverse way, Jose Mourinho would probably claim that this was always part of the plan. As wonderful as Manchester United were for 45 minutes away to the Premier League’s best side eight days ago, they were woeful at home to the bottom club for the full 90. Manchester City were made to win the title on Mourinho’s terms.
Having delayed City’s coronation, United offered to organise the catering and book the amateur magician as an apology. If coming back from two goals down at half-time at the Etihad Stadium felt like a corner turned, they were greeted with a locked door in more ways than one against West Brom.
The Baggies had not won away in the league since August, and this was only Darren Moore’s second game as a manager, yet the visitors kept their survival hopes alive while simultaneously bringing this title canter to an anti-climactic conclusion. United have grown accustomed to being second-best this season, but not against such modest opposition.
Jay Rodriguez’s close-range header was simply the inedible icing on this unpalatable cake. United had 70% possession, but this was domination as sterile and aimless as it ever was under Louis van Gaal. Three players had more than 100 touches, but none were meaningful. United completed four crosses in the first half, and Romelu Lukaku was responsible for one of them. Chris Smalling was the only starting outfielder not to register at least one unsuccessful touch – defined as ‘bad control’ – which is as damning as it is confusing.
This was the yin to last Saturday’s yang. For every ounce of fight United displayed against City, they surrendered meekly to West Brom. They thrived under pressure against their bitter rivals, but wilted with no burden on their shoulders here.
“I didn’t want to lose against City,” said Paul Pogba last week. “The loss from last season is still in my mind. If they won, they are champions, for all the fans it would be like death. To lose against City and to see them celebrate, I couldn’t let that happen.
“After a second half like this, we have to do that all the time. If we did we would be up there with City, and maybe even in front.”
No punchline necessary. Pogba neatly summed up the difference in performances, the perennial struggle to “do that all the time”. The Frenchman was superb at the Etihad, scoring twice in a scintillating rescue act. He was substituted before the hour mark at Old Trafford, ineffective and inadequate.
It was a display that made a mockery of the midweek hatchet jobs on City, champions at a stroll. ‘They are good, but not as good as we thought,’ declared one critic, stating that Pep Guardiola had ‘burned through’ £1billion for only a qualified success. If that truly is the case, what of Mourinho’s spend in the same timespan to sit 16 points behind their rivals by mid-April?
‘City are good, but not that good,’ echoed another, while a headline on The Sun’s website on Sunday read: ‘Manchester United have hope of winning Premier League next season after beating City… because Pep Guardiola isn’t all that’.
These were sensationalist views to feed sensationalist minds, and Gary Neville was right in identifying a middle ground after City’s win over Tottenham: “I think four weeks ago, when people were saying this is the greatest team, they were going far too early, and far too much. But now, to suggest this is a failure is ridiculous the other way.”
City are deserving champions, just as, after 33 games, United deserve to be in second. They have been the most consistent team in the top flight behind their rivals, but the gulf is far greater than just one place. City will spend in the summer, and United must follow suit to prevent that sizeable gap becoming a chasm.
If victory over City was a warning, a marker, a belated rallying cry, a reminder that United are capable of keeping the pace at the top of the Premier League next season, this was a reminder that they are more likely to either fall over their own shoelaces or suffer a stitch. Taking United from sixth to second is an undoubted improvement from Mourinho, but City’s consistent dominance means they feel just as far away from the title as ever before.