Red Versus Blue
With form usually going out of the window in these ties. It was unsure what to expect before kick off at the Etihad stadium. With Manchester City off the back of a 20 game unbeaten run and United with some patchy form that seen 4 draws in their last 5 games.
Both sides started strong lineups with Manchester United only missing Cavani from what is thought to be their strongest lineup. City rested players midweek and welcomed them back with Gabriel Jesus also added to the lineup. There was a massive 14 points between these sides before kickoff so realistically United needed the win more than their neighbours.
You can’t win a game in the first minute, but you can lose it.
An old saying mentions more or less that a slow start to a game might not be the end of the world, but give any side a lead early and it becomes a problem. With City barely able to string 3 passes together United found Martial running across the box blocked by three defenders. Gabriel Jesus decided to run across the French attacker and a penalty was given.
The Referee could not have had an easier job to award this as it had little argument against. Step forward Bruno Fernandez and although Edison almost saved his teams’ blushes it was 1-0 to the red.
City were a little like a chicken with its head cut off at this point. United took advantage with some decisive counter attacking. For at least 10 more minutes the game was in total control. Noticeably mentioned on commentary Harry Maguire and co were playing an incredibly high line.
The knock-on effect of this was that United’s midfield were crushing the usual intricate play of their neighbours. The usually impeccable Kevin De Bruyne was having a nightmare as he couldn’t seem to find a pass to a team mate. It took City a good 20 mins to regain their composure. After this it was business as usual without perhaps the penetration of their forwards.
Fullbacks Versus Wingers
This game came down to an entertaining feature that raged for the full duration of the game. Luke Shaw was having a great battle with Mahrez on one flank with Sterling and Wan Bissaka on the other going full tilt. City seemed to get the ball to Sterling on quite a few occasions. But the tiny winger came out the worse as Wan Bissaka showed why he is one of the best 1-1 defenders in the league.
Of course it is made a little easier with Fred always snapping around if you get into trouble. Sterling though had no belly for this fight and instead then chose to pass around Bissaka after losing the opening encounters. Mahrez on the other hand had the measure of Shaw going forward. The Algerian looked a threat when he drove at the United man but to City’s demise they never got the ball to him enough over 90 mins.
On the flip side it was the lively Dan James that impressed. I’ll have to check exactly what the mileage was on his legs as he was surely one of their top runners. Rashford was a little quiet at times but when in possession the panic he caused was incredible. Giving that this City team has speed in defence. I would call it almost “UnCitylike” to allow the United wingers to carry the ball so far each time.
They are renowned for making small fouls that tend to stifle teams. Or at least was a previous criticism of Peps side. It seemed very strange to see Martial and Luke Shaw join the wingers in completing the same run time and time again. It was like watching a 400m relay team at times carrying the batton. This is why i would imagine Pep rues his decision to not start Fernandinho. A rare mistake.
The winning formula
Alot of games this season have been played in similar fashion. Leicester City went to the Etihad with a counter attacking philosophy and got alot of joy from playing in behind the Manchester City defence. This was a different version of that though as United enjoyed more possession of the ball but were far more dangerous.
Luke Shaw stole the show with a run from inside his own half that took him 60 yards into the City box. To see him outstrip a flailing De Bruyne over this run was an impressive sight. His speed over distance was tested multiple times in this game and City had no answer. It was like watching a small weightlifter run the 100m final!
Over the 90 minutes as United grew into this game City became desperate and sloppy. Stones and Diaz frequently found themselves drawn into the middle of the park instead of covering the runs forward of the wingers. The two goal cushion should have become three or four with a few spurned chances from Martial.
The game was epitomised when Martial crashed through the center of the park and sent Rodri sprawling to the floor. The combination of Fred/McTominay were just too robust for the talented City midfield. In fact, to choose a man of the match from this performance was unjust as the team effort was immense as a whole.
When you look at both lineups it is noticeable how different they both setup. Not just in formation but more so in personnel. There is no doubt that Manchester City are the standout team of the season so far but there are different ways to win a match. Would Fred and McTominay get into a Pep Guardiola midfield? Probably not. But they were the catalyst in this game.
It wasn’t really a game for flair and flicks. Bruno Fernandez after cooly dispatching the spot kick was barely seen over 90 mins. Rashford was blistering but only a handful of times. So much so that Shaw drew all the accolades for his attacking runs.
Solskjaer has found a formula for his team. One that has been stuck with for most of the season. One that he will stick with going forward. Where he prefers a solid Wan Bisaka, he would probably never trust a Kyle Walker. Rodri as a lone CDM would also not be his cup of tea.
Only Leicester can match Manchester United as a counter attacking team with both seeing a mild success this season. Due to Peps incredible points tally each season any team that overhauls him will need to reach 90+ points. No team bar Liverpool have managed that in nearly 5 years now and they still came second with 97points!
Battles and Wars
So while this battle was won by the Red half of the City it is still somewhat of a consolation prize. Manchester City will, baring a total meltdown win the league. The War is harder to win simply because City have proven that they will not be caught unless outscored and with +90 points tally.
While United are efficient with their return this season using low block counter attacking football. To make the next jump they now need to find a way to regularly beat teams that play them at their own game.
It is not quite as easy as saying replace of of their defencive blockers and bring in a more fluid ball player. It will take away from the defencive stubbornness that they currently have. Same with a player like Wan Bissaka. Replace him with someone of the ilk of Cancelo and you will gain more attacking options going forward but as a sacrifice in defence.
If Manchester United are to stick with Solskjaer and his current regime. They will need to add cleverly over the coming windows to try bridge that gap. It has been years since they have played Title Winning football. The consistency required is just out of reach right now.
The good news for the rest of the league is that City are beatable again. It would not have boded well if they had brushed aside their local rivals and added to their run. It also shows that they too are lacking. Gabriel Jesus is not a replacement in the same vein as Aguero.
The brilliant Argentinians time seems to be up at the club now. Where will Pep turn to now to replace this legend of the game. Not many teams can win a league without playing a recognised striker for almost a full campaign but city are pretty close now.
For United will this change the way they approach big games from now on? From minute one they were pressing the Manchester City defence in a manner we’ve rarely seen from them against the bigger teams. Questions need to be asked why they only turn this style on for their local derby. Bravery and determination not to be second best in a huge game.
Yet contrast this with their display against Chelsea last week and it was chalk and cheese. This is something they need to change if they are to make the jump to the next level. There is a mental block being sent down from management. The fear of losing to the top 6 should not stifle the team from producing their best against them.