Manchester United were excellent but have been here before and must make this count for something. Pep Guardiola has a few thoughts to ponder.
1) “Our challenge is to finish second but I want to congratulate City for the title – because they are going to win and deservedly. They gave no chance to the others because they had this season of not stopping winning. My objective here was to get points and not spoil any celebrations. The point is can we improve enough to catch them next season?”
The irrefutable answer was no: within eight months, Manchester United were sixth in the Premier League table, 19 points behind leaders Liverpool after 17 games and Jose Mourinho was gone. That sensational 3-2 victory over the champions-elect at the Etihad was nothing more than a title-delaying red herring.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has to make this count for something. That win in April 2018 cut the gap between Manchester City and Manchester United in first and second to 13 points. Almost three years later they occupy the same positions and the difference is 11 points. Can they improve enough to catch them next season? There are no reasonable excuses for that not to be a realistic objective.
2) It would be a fine start to adopt this sort of approach to and mentality in such matches against the sides around them. One of the more frequent criticisms Manchester United have faced this season was their meek, safe attitude against Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham. They were bottom of a Big Six mini-league and without a convincing, coherent performance, no less a win. This at least puts them above Arsenal in that respect but City have double their points in those games.
Solskjaer has at least laid the foundations for progress on that front. Manchester United have conceded the fewest goals (7) in matches involving those teams, with five consecutive 0-0 draws looking far better now they have finally been punctuated by a win. They defended diligently here but it was accompanied by a counter-attacking edge. One day short of their previous Big Six league victory – by the same scoreline and over the same opponent – Manchester United showed what they are capable of at their best.
3) But then this is the infuriating cycle that has come to be expected and accepted. It felt like the tide had turned against Solskjaer for the first time in a while after that dire Crystal Palace stalemate. A tired and unimaginative team faced some semblance of resistance and their manager was incapable of conjuring a way through or around it. There was an understanding that he had done a better job than given credit for, yet had perhaps taken them as far as he could. A more seasoned coach would have to complete the journey.
Once again, he has bought himself considerably more time and patience by engineering an excellent win that was equal parts entirely predictable and completely unexpected. Midway through the first half, Gary Neville said that Solskjaer would always be judged on the league. That probably is the case with regards to Champions League qualification but it does feel as though this has to be the season he and Manchester United win that first trophy. If they can make Manchester City look so ordinary and uninventive in a one-off game then the FA Cup or Europa League is within reach. This is a manager and team built for tournament football; more semi-final disappointment will not be enough.
1 – Among the 67 managers Pep Guardiola has faced more than three times across all competitions as a top-flight boss, Ole Gunnar Solskjær is the only one to have beaten the Spaniard (4) more often that he has lost to Guardiola (3). Devil. pic.twitter.com/RKl7lhGLJq
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) March 7, 2021
4) There need be no grand inquest from Pep Guardiola. His team selection was not the best, the concession of a penalty inside the opening minute scuppered any plans he might have had and Manchester City are so unacquainted with the nuances in chasing games and deficits as opposed to leading and dominating them that the complexion changed massively so soon after the kick-off and their response was simply inadequate.
They last came from behind to win a Premier League game in December 2019, trailing in ten matches since but never managing to salvage more than a draw. Guardiola is one of the most meticulous minds in the sport but one cannot properly coach how to deal with trailing: that comes with in-game experience and he and Manchester City have so little of that. Being far worse on the day does not change the fact they are the best team in the league by a decent margin. It does fuel that self-doubt that will creep in whenever they go behind. For that, there is no quick fix.
5) As ever when it comes to long runs of sensational form ending in ignominious fashion, it will be interesting to see how Manchester City react. That veneer of invincibility has been pierced by their closest rivals, a team and manager that has held something of a hex over them in recent times. This defeat will undoubtedly hurt.
So the response will be crucial. Their most recent loss sparked a 28-match unbeaten run that took them to the top of the league, the final of the League Cup, the quarter-final of the FA Cup and a healthy cushion in the Champions League round of 16. A similar reaction to this would take them to an unprecedented Quadruple. But then it is easier to maintain a marathon pace from November to March than it is to sprint for two months straight at the end of a gruelling campaign. Questions will arise over their mentality after this, however ludicrous. The biggest challenges are yet to come.
6) “I know how you can take advantage of a situation: throw it to one of your own players,” scoffed Andy Gray. “Here is a lesson. Pick the ball up, take it behind your head, throw it to a teammate and keep both feet on the ground. I have got a new one. I want to be the first kick-off coach.”
He was not alone in dismissing Liverpool’s appointment of Thomas Gronnemark as throw-in coach in September 2019. The sport has developed to such an extent that teams are constantly searching for fine margins they can exploit for even the slightest advantage over everyone else, yet the mere notion that professional footballers could benefit from coaching how, when and where to take throw-ins was rejected and ridiculed by the usual crowd.
Show them a replay of Joao Cancelo waiting for options to appear and eventually settling on Gabriel Jesus, who was poorly positioned to receive the throw-in before being dispossessed instantly and giving away a penalty through his subsequent frustration and eagerness to atone for the mistake. Of Arsene Wenger’s many hare-brained schemes, the kick-in might actually be worth considering when you bear in mind the sheer amount of turnovers attacking teams are forced into in situations theoretically designed to favour them.
7) Anthony Martial did excellently to win the penalty, seemingly running down a blind alley before finding Jesus. That hardly divine intervention inspired him for the following 90 minutes.
Thursday saw Timo Werner extol the virtues of a centre-forward apparently incapable of scoring. He found himself in a number of fine positions against Liverpool but the goal never came. Despite that, his effort in stretching the defence with runs in behind benefited Chelsea massively.
It was the same for Martial, who had opportunities and really had to do so much better in the 69th minute when Scott McTominay put him through one-on-one against Ederson, yet his hold-up play was impeccable and United would have been considerably worse without him. He has to make this sort of selfless display – and that moment when he left a City player on the floor in a heap after turning him and powering away on the halfway line – the rule rather than a glorious exception.
I know he didn’t score, but if Anthony Martial doesn’t play that game, then Man Utd don’t win. Was superb from the first minute to the minute that he was taken off. That’s the best I’ve seen him play in a long, long time. He was 100% my MOTM.
— Ryan. 🔴 (@Vintage_Utd) March 7, 2021
8) His biggest challenge for man of the match came from Luke Shaw, whose well-taken goal will likely annoyingly see more people stand up and take note of his immense improvement this season, because even defenders only receive widespread notoriety when scoring.
Manchester City struggled to cope with him at times. Only once did an opposition player get the better of him, and when Riyad Mahrez left him on the floor with a sumptuous turn in the 28th minute it only resulted in a driven cross that Harry Maguire sent to safety. Shaw was otherwise immaculate and it is testament to his remarkable mental resolve that he has reaffirmed his brilliance after years of struggling at Old Trafford. The 25-year-old is able to trust his body again after numerous injuries and the result is quite something. He and the manager deserve praise for that.
9) Shaw having a shot with his weaker in the six-yard box after four minutes summed up the opening stages neatly. Manchester City looked panicked, with Oleksandr Zinchenko and Cancelo both ceding possession in dangerous areas early on as Manchester United pressed incessantly.
It took Kevin de Bruyne until the 18th minute to complete a single successful pass, the Belgian particularly struggling. At one point he tried to find Mahrez with a simple ball out to the right but it resulted in a throw-in; moments later he was guilty of failing to check his surroundings and letting Fred intercept a five-yard pass to set up a Marcus Rashford shot.
De Bruyne does remain ridiculous, of course: he ended the game with eight key passes when no other player managed more than three. But his display was so disjointed early on and that is when Manchester United did the damage. The hosts looked so much better and more fluid in their recent striker-less formation with roaming central midfielders taking it in turns to lead the line. Since De Bruyne and Sergio Aguero returned, Guardiola has been understandably keen to reinstate the former in particular. It has been to Manchester City’s detriment.
10) Bruno Fernandes, on the other hand, clearly enjoyed himself. After 11 minutes there was a first-time flick out to Aaron Wan-Bissaka that was patently unnecessary but a hugely fun way of getting from point A to point B with a brief detour to point Taking The Piss. A little later, the Portuguese tried a sort of jumping backheel in search of Martial’s run.
N’Golo Kante and Chelsea provided the blueprint to stopping Fernandes with a masterful man-marking job last week. Manchester City opted against a similar course of action and Fernandes revelled in the space afforded to him. It felt like the energy of Bernardo Silva was sorely missed in that midfield.
11) Manchester City could have done with his impeccable dribbling, too. Many of their attacks followed a predictable pattern before meeting a well-organised defence that could have played for days without conceding. Manchester United only surrendered one proper chance, and Raheem Sterling could not even reach Kyle Walker’s tantalising 79th-minute cross to manage a shot.
The right-back had apparently sat on the bench in the first half imploring his teammates to supply such deliveries, but against this defence they were surely ineffective more often than not. Manchester City tried 21 crosses and only four were accurate. In one instance in the 22nd minute, a Rodri shot from distance and a tight angle was predictably deflected into the path of Zinchenko, who crossed the ball with one teammate in the area: Jesus, surrounded by Maguire and Victor Lindelof with absolutely no chance of bypassing either.
It is a bit of a conundrum: Plan A has worked so often that bothering to develop a Plan B seems counter-intuitive. But on occasion Manchester City really would benefit from a little more variance going forward, particularly when counter-attacking.
Kyle Walker – who has been constantly shouting "crosses, crosses" to his Manchester City team-mates – is coming on. Presumably we can expect lots of crosses.
— Phil McNulty (@philmcnulty) March 7, 2021
12) Manchester United might have held out regardless of whether Sterling took that opportunity. They were defending so well and Manchester City had been hitting their head against that brick wall for so long but perhaps the dam would have burst if one goal had crept through. It is impossible to know.
But it was such a strange miss, as though Sterling was anticipating Lindelof getting a touch instead of preparing for the likelihood that the centre-half wouldn’t. That was one of the few occasions the winger managed to evade Wan-Bissaka, who has surely pocketed him enough times now that he gets to keep him. Sterling has faced Manchester United 20 times without scoring; the only other club he has played against more often than three times without a goal is Hull (six). For such a clearly brilliant player he remains as anxiety-inducing as the best of them.
13) A new striker must be the transfer priority this summer. Jesus cannot be faulted for a lack of effort or commitment but that so often translates to everything being a bit rushed and sloppy. His clever lay-off set Rodri up to hit the angle of crossbar and post in the second half but he offered little else outside of collapsing to the ground and appealing for a penalty to no avail. Martial was his superior in every way from idea to execution.
Jesus has a solid goalscoring record but that is the bare minimum at a club that creates chances with such alarming regularity. What Manchester City need is someone a little different but also sharper. Erling Haaland would be the obvious dream but they clearly cannot rely solely on what they have, regardless of Aguero’s future.
14) As aforementioned, Manchester United’s defence was excellent. Each member of the back four were wonderful in their own way: Wan-Bissaka made three tackles and five interceptions in silencing Sterling; Lindelof read the game so well and blocked two shots; Maguire ended with nine clearances and dominated despite being on a yellow card for an hour; Shaw was sublime.
Behind them, Dean Henderson continued to thrive when marshalling a higher defensive line than usual. There were no spectacular saves but plenty of fine ones and every basic aspect of his role were performed without missing a note. The second goal was a prime example as he collected a free-kick confidently, rejected the simple roll-out to Maguire and instead patiently assessed his options, landing on the long throw to Shaw which sparked a decisive counter-attack. David de Gea might as well spend a little more time with his family at this rate.
15) Fred is precisely the kind of player who exasperates the neutral with no affinity whatsoever for either club. It genuinely feels as though he gives the ball away sometimes with the express intention of being able to chase after it and win it back He and McTominay desperately need to improve their passing range and accuracy as Manchester United particularly struggled to alleviate pressure late in the first half as they simply could not retain the ball. Those central midfield positions are surely the most obvious ones to improve in the next transfer window, even if the Jadon Sancho right-winger dream persists.
16) Solskjaer’s best decision all afternoon was to retain his goalkeeper and thus prevent a second airing of that “De Gea, De Bruyne, De rby” line from December. But Martin Tyler showed that he is inevitable by talking about “getting fans back ASAP” and rather forcefully pronouncing it ‘ah-sap’. Not sure the broadcasting world can ever recover from that really.