The buildup to the first Manchester derby of this season was focused a lot more on the Citizens and the fallout of the Football Leaks, well, leaks, than the actual football. Most of this was down to the expectation that Manchester United would not pose a sufficient challenge to the well-oiled machine that City are under Pep Guardiola.
However, a recent renaissance in results, if not performance, for the Red Devils had raised hopes that they could perform a smash-and-grab raid of the kind they had done back in April of this year. Comeback victories against Bournemouth, Newcastle and Juventus, along with an eye-catching draw with Chelsea, seemed to have secured Jose Mourinho’s position in the Old Trafford dugout for the time being. City, however, would be a completely different beast, especially at the Etihad Stadium.
The City team was more or less as expected, with the only (minor) surprise coming on the right flank, where Riyad Mahrez started, which meant that Leroy Sane was benched. Bernardo Silva continued in midfield in Kevin de Bruyne’s injury-enforced absence.
Jose Mourinho was shorn of his midfield talisman, Paul Pogba, for this game, so he went for a trio of Nemanja Matic, Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini. Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez were only fit enough for the bench, which allowed Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard to start alongside the in-form Anthony Martial.
United struggle to lay a glove on City
Looking at the two sides, it was always a risk that United would struggle in midfield. The two Silvas, David and Bernardo, are masters at exploiting space and playing quick, short passes around opposition players, and with Fernandinho patrolling the back of midfield, City were always going to dominate possession. The selection of the flat-footed Fellaini and Matic played into their hands as well; at times it was like watching a pair of lumbering giants struggling to turn quickly enough as a swarm of blue shirts whizzed around them. The statistics are damning – United had completed just five passes by the time City took the lead in the 12th minute, with the home team racking up 96 of their own, with 91% possession. The opening exchanges of the game were as complete a domination of a supposed rival as is possible at this level, with City’s players constantly in motion around a bewildered and bedraggled United team.
United conceded too much space between the midfield and defensive lines, and that is a criminal offence against this City side. Having come close two or three times, City finally broke the deadlock when Aguero and Silva found space between the lines, before Sterling’s beautiful ball into the box was knocked across by Bernardo for the elder Silva to convert.
United push up, but to no avail
Following the goal, United did disrupt City to an extent. Lingard and Martial dropped back to offer more protection to their full-backs, and United pressed City from the front when the ball was with Ederson.
This did stop City from completely dominating territory and possession, but it now caused a different problem. United are one of the few elite European sides who do not use a variation of pressing as a defensive tactic; Mourinho’s preference is still to sit deep and deny space in behind and in between the lines. Therefore, on the sporadic occasions that United do press, it is disjointed and the team does not work together, opening up gaps that are easy to exploit. This lack of compactness was partly responsible for City’s second goal as well –
Matic and Herrera have games to forget
There has already been plenty of eulogizing over City’s third goal – a 44-pass move which saw every City outfield player touch the ball before Ilkay Gundogan slotted it past David de Gea. While it was a superb goal, Nemanja Matic was once again culpable, completely losing Gundogan behind him for a relatively simple finish –
The Serb has been a relative passenger for United of late, offering barely anything in defence or attack, and Sunday at the Etihad Stadium was more of the same. Alongside him, Ander Herrera had a poor game too, especially in the first half, when he was dispossessed no less than three times in his own half to spark City attacks. The Spaniard was poor on the ball, and it was surprising that he lasted as long as the 73 minutes he did before making way for Juan Mata. Given that two of United’s midfielders had such poor games, and the third was Marouane Fellaini, it is perhaps no surprise that City ended up winning the midfield battle and the match as well.
This derby was a perfect encapsulation of the gulf in quality between the red and blue halves of Manchester. Manchester City were more than the sum of their parts, coming together through unwavering faith in their philosophy, while United were disjointed and bereft of ideas. While United now have a relatively easy run of fixtures, Mourinho’s side are twelve points behind their cross-town rivals already, and it looks like they are now, once again, in a fight to finish in the top four.
For City, despite the slender lead they have at the top of the table, it seems as if they are even better than last season’s version, and it will take a superhuman effort from the likes of Chelsea or Liverpool to stop them from retaining the title.