16 Conclusions: Manchester City 1-2 Manchester United

1) It requires a level of research above and beyond the capabilities of this tiny and humble mind, but this should suffice: whether he is the first, second or 427th manager to do it, who genuinely believed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer talented enough to beat Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola in the same week?

Two of football’s greatest ever minds, serial trophy winners who have defined and dictated an entire era of coaching and management. Both have been schooled by a Norwegian P.E teacher in the space of three days.

It is genuinely remarkable. And it is at least 90% down to Neil Custis’s bullshit.


2) It does little to dispel the disappointment of defeats to Bournemouth, Newcastle, West Ham or Crystal Palace, but Solskjaer has developed a particular taste for picking on people his own supposed size. He has now won six of his 12 games as United manager against Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham. The odds of him toppling a giant are the same as flipping a coin and calling heads or tails, and he is yet to lose at Stamford Bridge, Anfield or White Hart Lane during his tenure.

He holds a 3-1 aggregate advantage over Tottenham and 7-1 lead against Chelsea, with Liverpool (1-1) and Arsenal (4-4) both unable to assert dominance across at least 180 minutes. City reestablished a 3-2 lead late on but that – much as Nicolas Otamendi’s goal itself – will be scant consolation.

It does the Norwegian a disservice to claim these games are just easier to both plan and motivate for, that the style of the opponent and the circumstance of the match simply plays into his and United’s hands. They fare well not by accident, but by the manager’s design.

There is a danger of such excellence being normalised: this is anything but typical. And for as long as United remain competitive and relatively successful in such fixtures, Solskjaer will be trusted to find a solution against lesser sides.


3) For Guardiola, a chastening defeat. Their form over the last five Premier League games screams inconsistency, uncertainty and a struggle with identity: defeat, win, draw, win, defeat.

He might not consider palindromes to be particularly foreboding, but he can no longer keep up the pretence of City being unlucky, or Liverpool simply being too good. They are, but Leicester are ahead of them too – and with a better goal difference.

City have now dropped 16 points this season; they will have to win every single remaining game to match their points total of 2018/19, with 2017/18 already out of reach after 16 matches. They remain an impressive team, albeit considerably flawed and at the end of a cycle. It has just been emphasised by Liverpool reaching the peak of theirs.


4) Perhaps that – the pronounced fall from grace and rise in social media-fuelled vitriol – contributed to the mindset of certain City fans who decided it was just and fair to throw a bottle at a rival player and subsequently abuse him. And perhaps that would be as pathetic an excuse as the action itself.

The video evidence – and if you have seen it you will know – is incriminating enough without adding much else. And the perpetrator would almost certainly have called for grave punishment when it was Raheem Sterling being hounded by Chelsea supporters at Stamford Bridge.

And therein lies the key: this is an issue which afflicts and affects every club. They all have racist fans, some more covert than others, but no less loathsome. This transcends rivalries; it transcends football.

In a week where an Italian newspaper accompanied pictures of Chris Smalling and Romelu Lukaku with a headline of ‘Black Friday’, it was an utterly depressing and sobering reminder that there is a long and hard battle to be fought in this country. And not against people who look different to what you deem acceptable, but against those who consider such abhorrent behaviour justified because ‘they paid for a ticket’ and something, something free speech.

It’s fucking despicable. Plain and simple. And as good as it was to see City release a frank statement promising cooperation with the police and ‘a zero tolerance policy regarding discrimination’, that cannot be the last we hear of it. Do not try and brush it under the carpet, because it stinks and it is lingering.

Oh, and well in, Gary.


5) The opening period was typically cagey, a chess match where neither side wanted to give up too much ground in pursuit of a result. It was nervous, cautious, careful.

Or not. The tireless Daniel James had a shot saved and Kevin de Bruyne an effort blocked from the subsequent break in the second minute. James then played Anthony Martial through the centre, who cut back just behind Jesse Lingard in the penalty area. Then, in the ninth minute of a game in early December, Lingard could finally boast to have had more shots on target than Ben Foster this season when Ederson saved from close range.

After no shots in the opening ten minutes when these two sides last met at Old Trafford in April, five in the first nine was rather refreshing. So often when two sides so defensively vulnerable but potentially brilliant in attack face each other they both make concessions in pursuit of safety. Here, in a derby that could make or break either season, both smelled blood and instinctively went for it.


6) After his midweek exploits, Marcus Rashford’s weekend encore was a delight. Once again unburdened of any real defensive responsibility, he was deployed high on the left as a constant reminder of United’s threat. With Kyle Walker still pushing up into central midfield when City were in possession, it offered his erstwhile international teammate acres of space to attack.

That, in turn, offered De Bruyne room to manouevre behind him, but United deemed that a sacrifice worth making. Had Rashford not entered the game in such incredible form Solskjaer might have reconsidered that plan, but there was more than enough value in channelling attacks through a player high on confidence against a defence low on such immeasurables.

Rashford had 16 touches in the first half, the last of which was in the build-up to Martial’s goal in the 29th. He dismantled the reigning, defending champions of the country in less than half an hour, constructing the platform from which United reached victory.


7) He even played the classics from Wednesday, winning and converting a penalty himself. It unsurprisingly started with a fast, incisive break after Fred dispossessed Gabriel Jesus on the edge of the United area. Lingard received the ball before Rashford cut in from the left, formed the filling of a three-tiered City sandwich and was bundled over by Bernardo.

It was a clear penalty. The three supposed United handballs – Lindelof from Bernardo’s shot, Fred from Walker’s cross and Luke Shaw from Riyad Mahrez’s cross – were not by the letter of the literal and actual law.

And our best wishes go to Sterling, who must still be hospitalised after that vicious hand on the back from Harry Maguire.


8) If Guardiola is still confused as to how that gap to Liverpool has formed, he should consider watching those first 30 minutes again. Both sides had seven shots. Five of United’s were on target, with Rashford hitting the crossbar and curling wide when unmarked accounting for the other two. Six of City’s were blocked; De Bruyne did not come close with the one a United player did not relentlessly hunt down.

There’s your answer, Pep. While Liverpool have moments of indecision, fallibility and vulnerability, City suffer entire periods of them. He will likely review his claim that “we are the best team by far at creating chances and the best team by far at conceding few” based on that first half hour alone; they were hammered in both respects at home by a side that started the game in 8th.


9) City at least had the small comfort of knowing how to respond in this situation. It was the sixth time they had conceded the opening goal in a Premier League game this season; they had done so just three times in all of 2018/19 and five times in 2017/18.

The Norwich, Wolves and Liverpool games turned out to be unsalvageable. But when they went 1-0 down at home to Chelsea in the 21st minute last month, they equalised by the 29th and took the lead in the 37th. Going behind in the 23rd to a similar calibre of side should therefore have carried no fear or trepidation.

There was a goal in the 29th; Martial took it brilliantly. City were shellshocked. All they could manage before the break was two David Silva shots on target, both comfortably saved by David de Gea, and the first a byproduct of a United mistake, with Fred out of position and McTominay coming out of position to cover.

Jesus should realistically have scored from De Bruyne’s sensational cross on the left, but it was an incredibly underwhelming offering from a side being humbled in their own home by their bitter – and most certainly not better – rivals.


10) De Bruyne should not really be tarred with that brush. He was the only City starter to emerge with any semblance of credit from an absolute humbling.

Ederson was too slow to react to Martial’s strike – although it was well-placed. Walker struggled to offer either protection or a reliable outlet. John Stones continues to play with a jarring lack of urgency. Fernandinho is no centre-half. Angelino was appalling. Rodri was barely noticeable. David Silva’s showed sparks but nothing to halt his gradual decline. Bernardo was dreadful. Jesus was wasteful. Sterling was shackled.

De Bruyne was by no means close to his usual standard, but he at least attempted to fight the tide. City without him this season does not bear thinking about.


11) Martial’s goal changed United’s approach entirely. Solskjaer took another gamble in trusting his side to defend a two-goal lead, having seen them squander advantages half that size with unerring regularity.

It was only when United sat off and retired from the midfield battle that the hosts found a foothold. United had 36.3% possession and counter-attacking intent in the first 30 minutes, then 25.8% and a lead they deemed comfortable enough to just defend for the next 15. Martial’s shot was United’s last until Lingard tested Ederson in the 67th, with the 40-minute interval a series of dedicated City attacking drills.

To Solskjaer’s credit, it worked. United defended exceptionally well, conceding only when substitute Nicolas Otamendi headed in a corner. Maguire marshalled proceedings well, with Lindelof brilliant alongside him.

As breathtaking as their forward play can be, this was a much-needed defensive improvement, encapsulated by Ashley Young making more tackles (2) as an 88th-minute substitute than Stones, Rodri and Fernandinho combined (1).


12) Don’t worry; Wan-Bissaka gets his own tribute.

What a performance. Five tackles. Two interceptions. Seven clearances. Three shots blocked. He offered little in attack but, good lord. He is the best defensive defender in the division.

If one minute summed up United’s game, it was the 55th. It is incredibly grating to see a defender attempt a slide tackle on the edge of the area, such is the imbalance between risk and reward. Get it even slightly wrong and the punishment far outweighs the potential benefits of simply redirecting the ball elsewhere. Yet with Wan-Bissaka, a slide tackle is never attempted; it is simply executed. And Bernardo was repelled. So too was De Bruyne seconds later, when Lindelof leapt to block his shot. It was brilliant, backs to the wall stuff.

It should come as no surprise that Wan-Bissaka was therefore the star. This was precisely the sort of task he excelled at with Crystal Palace, and Sterling barely had a moment to breathe. Did United spend £50m on a ’90s full-back? Right now, do they care?


13) Might Guardiola regret not introducing Mahrez earlier? City had as many shots in his first minute on the pitch (2) as they had in the 20-minute period from the restart to him being brought on.

They instantly looked an infinitely greater threat, Mahrez providing a more direct and multi-layered consideration than the two-dimensional Bernardo. The manager’s reticence to restore him to the central midfield position he dominated last season continues to baffle, not least because it keeps him out wide where he is ineffective, and Mahrez on the bench.

The Algerian assisted City’s goal, with only a fine De Gea save preventing him from equalising a minute later. His manager would be a fool to keep benching him.


14) I f**king told you. But do not fight me, Roy. I’d fear for your safety, fella.


15) “I don’t want any players in January,” Guardiola said earlier this month of potential winter transfers. It is a stance he will likely not reconsider, even if his last such addition of Aymeric Laporte continues to rise in value with each passing game.

But it was the Spaniard’s insistence that “we don’t have to rebuild too much” that stands out. David Silva is confirmed to be leaving, Fernandinho could easily follow and Scott Carson might even need replacing. He might claim that “three players is not rebuilding a team”, but it at least represents complicated and dangerous spinal surgery.

This summer, in that case, leaves City in terminal condition. Angelino is not fit for purpose. Rodri’s adaptation has been painful. Joao Cancelo cost an unfathomable amount for an unused substitute in ten of 16 games so far. Guardiola built a title-winning side at the Etihad with elite levels of both money and coaching. His recent history shows the former is no guarantee, and the latter might be beyond even him and this squad.


16) For the first time since March, United have won more than one Premier League game in a month. Equally shocking is that they have now scored the opening goal as often as City this season (10/16), and have been leading at half-time more (9/16 to 8/16).

It underlines both the work that needs to be done and the progress that has already been made. United are not as good as City, nor are they as bad as any of the four teams that have beaten them this season. It should not be forgotten just how dire they were against Newcastle and West Ham, nor should it be ignored how excellent and ruthless they have been against Tottenham and City.

This week, at the very least, has shown he has the aptitude to manage matches and moments. Whether he can manage seasons remains to be seen, but he has most certainly earned the opportunity.

Matt Stead


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