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1. Jose made his point
The message from Mourinho and captain on the day Michael Carrick immediately after this intense yet unspectacular derby was ‘job done’. The assessment of most pundits is that United came for a point, and they left with just that. Certainly, with his comments after the game, the United boss did little to dispel that assertion. Carrick described it as a point gained in the circumstances, and Mourinho alluded to the narrative that no more could be achieved playing with just ten men. Given that Fellaini only entered meltdown in the 83rd minute, this was typical Mourinho spin.
I suppose it’s difficult to criticise a team that arrive with an objective, and manage to achieve it. Whether a point will prove to be crucial in the race for the top four will be known at the end of the season; importantly it keeps things ‘in their hands’, as United currently sit two points behind Liverpool with a game in hand.
The race for top four is looking increasingly tight, and this result is of most benefit to Liverpool and Arsenal as neither Manchester side could capitalise on this opportunity to make a statement as we reach the concluding games of the season. There will still be plenty of twists and turns before the league campaign finishes, as typically the last couple of seasons have proven that no result is guaranteed. United have away fixtures to follow at White Hart Lane and the Emirates which will be a challenge, but equally with Swansea visiting this Sunday, there is no guarantee United will have the firepower to put them to the sword.
If the battle for the top four ends in failure, it will be the repeated failure to capitalise against the division’s lesser lights at Old Trafford that will be responsible, not the likes not this point earned at the Etihad.
2. The Undefeated streak continues
This was Manchester United’s 13th draw of the season, after 33 games. It stretches the undefeated run in the Premier League to 24 games. That is a remarkable number and essentially sums up where Mourinho’s United stand at this point in time. They have the league’s second best defensive record having conceded just 24 goals, and more impressively have only conceded five of those goals since the turn of the year. They have become, after some early teething problems, a side that is exceptionally difficult to beat, and in almost equal measure they find it exceptionally difficult to beat others.
United have scored 50 league goals, 10 fewer than their nearest rival from the top 7, and 20 fewer than top scorers Liverpool. So, the undefeated streak is a badge of honour and a sign of progress, but is scant consolation for the fact that Manchester United have ultimately under-achieved and should be much higher up the table. In terms of resources, playing staff and manager profile, the minimum expectation at the start of this season was to challenge Pep Guardiola’s City for the title. The reality is that neither club has been anywhere near that target.
Both managers talk about progress, and a view towards next season. In the case of United (not City), progress from last season is evident, but it must be built upon. Another season of the same for United would be unacceptable. The damage of the last three seasons has sufficiently lowered expectations, but with the money that has been, let alone will be spent, a large proportion of those draws need to be converted to victories.
3. Jose Mourinho is a pragmatist
Granted, this is not something we learned from the Manchester derby, but it was certainly further emphasised. We knew what we were getting with Mourinho, and he stifled this game with a view to shutting out the opposition. This led to an all-time record low 30% possession statistic, which to be honest sounded generous given the balance of play. Pre-game, he stated to the mundane Geoff Shreeves that he expected City to dominate possession as “that is how they play”. This appeared to cause him no issues, as they were accommodated in controlling possession so that his United side could remain, resolute and compact.
His explanation for this approach was the players not available to him – most notably Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Juan Mata and Paul Pogba. Again, I think this is convenient spin, as I don’t believe he would have set up tactically any differently with those players available. The flat back four remained flat at all stages, with full backs Valencia and Darmian consigned to their own half throughout. In front of that was the midfield wall of Carrick, Fellaini and Herrera, none of whom ventured forward. The hope was that, whilst nullifying the game, the pace of the front three would lead to scarce opportunities that may have led to a goal.
Pogba would certainly have added an element to the side, as he brings the capability of going past players with a moment of skill, a range of passing, and almost unrivalled athleticism. The flip side is that he wouldn’t have the discipline to operate within this strict set of parameters without damaging the defensive performance. Also, one player on his own does not account for a shift towards an attacking emphasis. City lost their playmaker David Silva to injury, but it didn’t impact their tactical approach.
Pep Guardiola is a coach with a philosophy. Ball retention, domination and control. Mourinho is a coach with an objective: to win trophies. If he feels he is up against a superior footballing side, he has absolutely no qualms about focussing on stopping the opposition, as opposed to trying to beat them at their own game. He did it an Anfield and he did it here – and again, on both occasions he shut the game down just like he set out to.
The question is how long this approach has merit with the Old Trafford faithful. Personally, at this moment, I’m glad that we haven’t been getting beaten with regularity by our rivals. Under David Moyes, it wasn’t a question of whether we would lose to City or Liverpool, it was a question of by how many. The relief of at least being competitive means that, presently, I can tolerate this approach. However, I have been raised, and spoilt, on the attacking traditions of Sir Alex Ferguson.
Hindsight can alter the reality of the times, and there is no doubt that Fergie himself became more pragmatic as he got older, but his essence was always that of a risk taker. He generally chased the victory as opposed to settling for the draw. In his own words “I am a gambler – a risk taker – and you can see that in how we played in the late stages of matches. If we were down with 15 minutes to go, I was ready to take more risks. I was perfectly happy to lose 3-1 if it meant we’d given ourselves a good chance to draw or win”. This is not a quality Mourinho shares, and it does make it less of a thrill ride watching his latest incarnation of Manchester United.
Success will determine the attitude of fans. If Mourinho builds on his defensive excellence and wins the title next year, he will sustain the adoration of the support. However, if his pragmatism continues to fail to deliver consistent victories, he will struggle to maintain the support of the masses.
4. Manchester City dominated both derbies
As much as Mourinho got what he came for, I shouldn’t fail to explicitly acknowledge that City have been the better footballing side in both derby games. They could and should have won this game, but for Aguero uncharacteristically failing to convert at least two presentable chances, and the late Gabriel Jesus disallowed goal being marginally offside. It is always a risky game when you offer so little offensively to keep the opponent conscious of their defensive responsibilities. But for Herrera’s headed opportunity late in the first half, and the flap from Claudio Bravo giving Mkhitaryan a chance, United did not threaten at all.
This is a concern as it shows how much progress needs to be made in an attacking sense. It highlights that Mourinho is an excellent defensive coach who largely relies on high quality attacking players to create an attacking structure themselves. For young players like Rashford, Martial, and Lingard, this proved too much, as it has done in many games this season. They were unable to provide a counter attacking threat as they were simply outnumbered by City players, and this got worse as the game progressed as Mourinho showed no attacking intent.
I have reflected on this and whether United have the players available to play away to a team like City, and at least compete as if they have a relative status: I honestly believe they do. There are defensive vulnerabilities possessed by City that have been consistently exploited this season. This was a structure that Mourinho elected to adopt, and in fairness it was to much better effect than the muddled approach of the Old Trafford encounter.
Both sides will doubtless spend more huge amounts of money in the summer to try and rectify their respective shortcomings. City need to bolster their defence and replace their woeful goalkeepers, and United will doubtless bring in some world class attacking options who can play without strict instruction and produce the much-needed increased number of goals. Hardly a terrible position to be in, but I can’t be alone in finding that thought very unfulfilling. If a superstar arrives like Griezmann or Morata, all well and good. But I don’t want the existing talent like Marcus Rashford, Lingard, Martial, Fosu-Mensah and Luke Shaw (I’m aware they are hardly home grown) relegated to the bench or sold for the latest raft of stars. We need to build on what we have, not replace it. Di Maria, Schweinsteiger and Falcao did not equal success. Gary Neville stated that Mourinho needs to be ruthless and replace half a dozen players. I would rather see him supplement the squad than rip it up and start again. The quality is there if the best can be coaxed out of them.
5. Fellaini butts out
I feel like every time I pen my thoughts on this United team, I have to savage Marouane Fellaini… and today will be no different! Of course, this was an important derby match and tensions run high. Chris Smalling got an idiotic red card a couple of years ago in the same fixture, but Fellaini’s headbutt on Aguero was a whole other level. Mourinho was critical of Aguero’s reaction going down upon the impact. He made the most of it – what modern player wouldn’t? If the same thing had happened to Ander Herrera he’d have put on his best Oscar nominated performance.
It’s not that Fellaini had played badly up to that point. He carried out his defensive responsibilities, hassling and getting in the way of the opposition to good effect, whilst offering little creativity or touches on the ball. But his double foul, which may have had him get his marching orders in any case were bad enough, the head butt was inexcusable although entirely in character for him.
This was a crucial stage of the game where discipline and structure was of the utmost importance, and he let his team mates down.
Fellaini is a perfect example of a player who does need to be replaced for the side to develop. In order to compete at the top again, Mourinho must show more attacking intent and positivity, and Fellaini is the antithesis of that approach. As I have said in the past, Fellaini is good at what he does, which on numerous occasions in the past has been to head butt opponents. But he is not good enough for this club, and is not a player who should have had half the playing time he has been afforded this season. He would get nowhere near the team for any of the top sides in Europe, and if that is the level this club aspires to, his time must surely have come to an end.