1) The problem with the pre-match narrative was that it suggested Manchester United even had a say in the matter. Should they roll over to prevent Liverpool from winning the title? Or was their professional pride and own Champions League aspirations too powerful to ignore in a Manchester derby?
It was more zugzwang than checkmate: United simply could not win. And against this Manchester City side, United simply could not win. It was of little consequence what course the hosts chose to take, because the reigning Premier League champions would quite like to keep that crown atop their heads.
Burnley, Leicester and Brighton stand in the way of a side that have now won 11 consecutive Premier League games and 26 of their last 28 in all competitions. It would be plain stupid to back against them.
2) Not since December 2015 had United lost three games in a row, and not since May of that year had they done so without scoring. This performance was far removed from the drab days of Louis van Gaal, but that is scant consolation.
After scoring 39 times in their first 17 games under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, United have scored six goals in the subsequent nine. Their last goal from open play in all competitions was 657 minutes ago, Marcus Rashford’s last goal was in March, Paul Pogba’s last non-penalty was in February and Jesse Lingard’s last strike was in January.
It was easy for Solskjaer to cast himself as his predecessor’s antithesis by providing a licence for attack and adventure early in his reign. But that was revoked long ago and the club have been directionless on the pitch since. The players must shoulder most of the responsibility, yet the manager should not be immune to criticism either.
On Sunday Manchester United didn't want it enough. On Wednesday they wanted it, but were miles away from being good enough.
Both are separate problems, neither are easy to solve, and nothing so far suggests that this club is clever enough to solve either.
— Daniel Storey (@danielstorey85) April 24, 2019
3) Solskjaer’s starting line-up seemed more questionable than Eric Cantona’s Instagram feed. The Norwegian made a statement with five changes but would have been better off whispering that this was Matteo Darmian’s first Premier League start since Jose Mourinho’s final game in charge – and that the Italian last started a Premier League win on the opening day.
Darmian was named as the right-sided centre-half of a back three alongside Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof, with Ashley Young and Luke Shaw providing the width. It was a formation that suggested solidity and rigidity, but United have now started seven games with three at the back this season and won none of them, conceding more than once each time.
In only one of those seven games has that back three contained three genuine centre-halves – the 2-2 draw against Arsenal in December. United last won when starting a game with three at the back in December 2017. It is a specialist system that this side cannot properly play, and a squad that has never been suited to it.
4) Ed Woodward should be embarrassed that the two matchday squads were separated by just over £80m in transfer fees. United’s starting XI (£249.6m) and bench (£215.8m) was in stark contrast to City’s (£354m and £182.5m respectively), yet the levels of investment were roughly similar. The only difference was that Guardiola’s side was the result of every facet of a club moving in the same direction to one well-defined goal, whereas Solskjaer’s was an example of what happens when a club without structure is dominated by self-serving individuals instead of those eager to work together as components in the wider machine.
“I think we’ve played a very good side and it’s the sort of standard and level we need to try and aspire to get ourselves to at this moment in time,” said David Moyes after a 3-0 home defeat to City in March 2014. He was justifiably ridiculed then as the manager of the then-champions but, five years on, his words have never rung more true. This game proved that United are light years behind both on and off the pitch.
5) Yet there were shoots of early progress. The estimable Martin Laurence unearthed a gem of a stat before the game: City’s goal difference in the first 15 minutes of Premier League matches this season (+17) was better than United’s overall (+15). With Guardiola’s side having scored in the opening quarter of an hour of six of their last seven matches in all competitions, it seemed as though United would instantly be put on the back foot.
The reaction that many expected – nay, demanded – after the capitulation at Everton ensured that was never a possibility. The closest City came in the opening stages was when David de Gea was required to react quickly after Smalling deflected Sterling’s pass towards goal. United, on the other hand, had early opportunities through Shaw and Rashford before Lingard met Pogba’s sensational diagonal with a first-time volley that flew wide. Old Trafford was impressed.
6) And Vincent Kompany was targeted. Solskjaer spoke before the game of how United needed to both capitalise on their “physical” advantage and look to expose City’s few “weaknesses”. Their captain has long been the biggest chink in the armour.
Twice in the first eight minutes Kompany passed the ball out of play after being panicked by a voracious press. Lingard and Rashford left Aymeric Laporte to his own devices when in possession but hunted like a pack of lions as soon as his central-defensive partner took a little too long in releasing the ball. His tenth-minute booking for a foul on Rashford felt like the start of what would surely be a very long evening.
7) City finally forced their first genuine shot on target in the 18th minute when De Gea palmed a stinging Bernardo effort away. But within 13 seconds of the Spaniard clearing the ball, United almost carved out a chance with an excellent counter-attack. Lingard and Rashford found themselves in a two-on-two situation with the former perhaps waiting too long to release the latter. Rashford had to constantly check his run before Lingard finally made the pass, by which point Ederson had raced off his line to avert the danger. Had United been a little sharper in that moment, they would have taken the lead.
8) They might have deserved it on the balance of play. The formational fears had been forgotten in the fog of what was little more than a determined, belligerent and organised start. United were little more than above average – and City perhaps more patient than overawed – but it was a distinct improvement from just three days prior.
Pardon Jose Mourinho while he angrily nurses an organisation-fuelled erection. pic.twitter.com/oMh8jZlHc8
— Football365 (@F365) April 24, 2019
That is to damn with the faintest of praise. The irony is that such belief in the tactical approach would likely have been enough to assert themselves against Everton, if not West Ham, Wolves and Watford in recent disappointing displays. Hell, had they played like this under Mourinho then the Portuguese might still be in employment. It should not take the combination of an embarrassing defeat and the visit of your brilliant bitter rivals to raise your game to an acceptable level.
9) But it did feel like City were the unwitting babysitters placed in charge of an unruly child full of sugar. They had been unsettled and unnerved by United’s fast-paced start and were eventually content with letting them tire themselves out before using a slightly stricter voice, imposing more rules and taking control of the situation.
City had three shots to United’s five and 66.4% possession in the first 25 minutes, completing 84% of their 188 passes and being out-dribbled four to three. In the last 20 minutes of the first half, the visitors had three shots to United’s one and 73.8% possession, completing 87% of their 189 passes and making five more dribbles than their hosts. The pressure was building.
10) So it proved. Almost. The most endearing aspect of this City side is that, more than perhaps any other team, you can tell just how drilled certain movements and actions are in training. They become automatic, removing the need for instinct and replacing it with muscle memory.
Take the archetypal City goal, for example: Fernandinho collects the ball in midfield and picks out the run of Sterling – one he doesn’t even have to check to know it has been made. Sterling plays the ball back into midfield and darts into the penalty area, safe in the knowledge that he will be picked out by a pass over the top of a flat-footed and oblivious defence. He then passes to Aguero at the back post for the Argentine to convert from six yards out. Guardiola demands that the sequence is repeated until it is singed into their minds.
It means that City can change the tempo of any given game in an instant and the opponent is powerless to stop it. But one variation of the move is where Sterling approaches a defence slowly, picks out Fernandinho in central space and promptly races behind the defence to wait for the lofted return ball. It quite literally came to pass in the 35th minute as City started to exert themselves, but Sterling’s mistake of trying to control with his right foot instead of his left cost him and his side; he was through on De Gea otherwise.
It was the first moment City looked like themselves; the first moment United could not prevent that from happening.
11) The half ended level thanks only to a smart De Gea save from Sterling’s close-range effort. But the tide had turned and United were about to be marooned. City would not be prevented from striking early in both halves.
The key was Ilkay Gundogan, who was allowed to drift through the centre of midfield unopposed. The German might not be famed for his attacking prowess but that hardly excuses letting a player of his ilk keep the ball for four seconds without facing any pressure. He rose up as Andreas Pereira and Fred both stood off him, then opened up his body to pick out a pass for Bernardo. The Portuguese took four touches before dispatching his fifth beyond De Gea at his near post.
There is no better big-game player, no-one more decisive in games of such significance. No-one ran further (12.2km), no City player had more shots (3), and no-one had a bigger influence on proceedings at Old Trafford. As Guardiola said post-match: “The whole season has been a master class from him.”
12) Pogba’s role in the goal should not be overlooked. Pereira and Fred’s mistakes were born of naivety, innocence and, in part, a refusal to abandon their midfield shape. Pogba’s was the opposite: he was out of position and embarked on one of his patented jogs back as Bernardo found himself one-on-one with Shaw. United had doubled up on City’s wide players successfully throughout but one lapse in concentration brought the house of cards crashing down. Bernardo’s footwork beat Shaw and early shot foiled De Gea, but it could all be tracked back – pun intended – to Pogba.
13) Aguero hit the post from a beautiful move soon after yet United should have been level before the hour mark. A woeful Kyle Walker clearance allowed Rashford to cross to the back post, just beyond the attempted acrobatics of Kompany. Lingard’s movement provided him with an open goal that he contrived to miss, and City were on their eighth life of nine.
They doubled their lead ten minutes later when a misplaced Fred pass was punished in the most severe way possible. Kompany intercepted and zipped the ball into Sterling who burst past the Brazilian and Lingard, then hurtled through the centre before playing in substitute Leroy Sane to score. It took all of 12 seconds from Kompany winning possession to City scoring their second to remind the world that they have about 427 different ways of hurting an opponent.
The vertical back four. Tactical innovation, Man United style. pic.twitter.com/KRgYNRwmSE
— James Nalton (@JDNalton) April 24, 2019
14) De Gea can be exonerated of blame for the first goal considering the precision and surprising pace of Bernardo’s effort. But his reaction to conceding the second spoke volumes: it was a fairly central shot at a forgiving height, with his insistence on trying to save everything with his bloody feet costing him.
The Spaniard has only ever conceded more league goals in a single campaign once in his entire career, and has kept fewer clean sheets than Neil Etheridge this season. With one year remaining on a contract that increasingly looks as though it will not be extended, United should give serious thought to selling him this summer instead of being held to ransom by a player who might well be in decline.
15) That Oleksandr Zinchenko gets his first mention so late is perhaps the point. By far the least expensive member of this City side at just £1.7m – £6m Kompany and £20.3m Gundogan were next – remains one of the most understated, underrated cogs in this sensational machine.
He attempted as many passes into the opposition half as Pogba did overall (56). He had more touches (124) than Rashford (40), Lingard (36), Pereira (33), Anthony Martial (9) and Alexis Sanchez (1) combined. He made the most tackles (4) and most interceptions (4) of any player for either side.
The 22-year-old is also yet to feature in a single Premier League defeat since he joined in 2016. City have not even drawn when Zinchenko has played, winning on all 19 of his appearances, of which 17 were starts. His last league defeat was in May 2016 for FK Ufa in Russia’s top flight.
For a relative unknown signed for something of a pittance as an attacking midfielder, he has somehow become the most reliable left-back for one of the best clubs in Europe. He is their unsung hero.
I have supported Man Utd for one league game this season and Liverpool for 35. They have lost the same amount of games in that time.
— Hazy (@IceIceHazy) April 24, 2019
Yeah, pretty much.