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Trailing 2-0 at half time having managed a single touch in the opposition penalty area, Manchester United achieved the most unlikely of comebacks against their city rivals and Premier League champions elect in the most thrilling half of football in the post-Fergie era. It was one of the craziest matches in recent years; here are five things we learned:
1. This victory has significance
In real terms, this result only postpones the crowning of Man City as league winners. The major motivation was to ensure that they were not allowed to rub salt in the wound by achieving this fate against their traditional city foes. After the game, Mourinho claimed “Our challenge is to finish second” and therefore this was the motivation for the three points. The reality is that this game meant a lot more than that.
Defeat has put a dent on the relentless title win City are set to achieve. This game represented an opportunity to emphatically seal the title having lost only once in a near-flawless league campaign. Conversely, United have stuttered throughout the season, struggling to find the consistency required to mount a serious title challenge. This result represents a marker for next season, where it seems Mourinho’s mind is already starting to turn. He further stated “The point is can we improve enough to catch them next season?”.
No United fan, player or coach is naïve enough to think that this result represents anything other than a pleasing day of spoiling City’s party. However, the role of party poopers is not one a club like Manchester United want to fulfil. The focus now is the need to continue to improve moving toward next season. Momentum is required to provide the belief and confidence necessary, and that has been lacking, to challenge for the major honours next season.
This result can provide a catalyst to take into next season. There has been a prevailing narrative, and in all honesty probably a belief amongst the players, that Manchester City are at a different level to this United team. Following Paul Pogba’s quick-fire double, the United performance was completely unrecognisable to the first half, as players appeared to gain belief that they could attack the suddenly vulnerable City defence and achieve success.
Psychologically, this result could have a major impact. It finally contradicts the widely published statistics of Mourinho’s struggles away from home against the top six, and it provides the sort of belief and never-say-die attitude that we associate with the great United sides of the Ferguson era. Granted, City have other priorities and had rested some key players, but they were absolutely cruising in the first half and the result was threatening to become embarrassing. This was the first time City have lost having been two goals up since October 2008. It was only the second time in Guardiola’s career he has lost having been two goals up. The turnaround was remarkable – you would have received better odds on Luke Shaw winning the manager’s Player of the Year award. Purely in terms of the result, this was the best moment of Mourinho’s tenure.
2. We Saw the best and worst of United
As thrilling as the comeback was, it came off the back of an absolutely abysmal 25 minutes to end the first half. Following Vincent Kompany’s bullet header where he comprehensively bullied Chris Smalling, United completely capitulated, and City looked every inch the dominant force they have been all season. The only saving grace was that the majority of opportunities fell to Raheem Sterling, who seemed determined not to hit the target.
It had already reached the stage where City’s fans were sarcastically cheering every successfully completed pass, and the United defence was opening like the red sea, constantly pulled out of position by the fluid and clever City attack of Bernardo Silva, Sterling and Leroy Sane. Chris Smalling looked completely out of his depth, and Eric Bailly not much better.
United showed no composure on the ball, and in the entire first half managed one single touch inside the City penalty area, never mind any shots on goal. After a cagey opening 20 minutes where they had at least looked organised and competitive, they were made to look like a pub team. City players were receiving the ball in any position or situation, and finding themselves presented with several passing options, and having the confidence to play short, concise passes to retain their usual 80% of possession. United had no answers and it appeared to be a question of how many City would score – the league was won.
The turnaround in the second half was as unexpected as it is difficult to explain. Ultimately it came from a sudden renewed confidence. There were no obvious tactical or positional changes. Mourinho was asked what he said to his players during the interval; “I gave them the example of many matches were teams were losing 2-0 and they recover. They kept their shape and it’s a very important result for us”.
It hardly sounds like the most rousing team talk, but who knows what was really said behind closed doors? What is apparent though, given that the last away game at Crystal Palace also consisted of a comeback win from two goals down, is that when the backs are against the wall and this side is forced to take some risks and attack, they have a huge amount of firepower. United had no option in the second half but to try and improve their attacking impetus, and players started to move with more fluidity and flexibility, and most importantly they took their chances when they came. Once in front, they reverted to a defensive but incredibly committed display with their restored belief that they could beat their superior opponents. It still required some help from the referee, the post and a tremendous save from De Gea, but it was a pleasure to see United play in such a fashion, particularly given how limp and pathetic the first half had been.
City still dominated the game over the full 90 minutes with 65% possession, and 20 shots on goal. United managed only four efforts on target and scored from three of them. However, they turned the game around and emerged with a victory, and deserve great credit.
3. Paul Pogba Stepped Up
The United performance was parallel with that of Paul Pogba. Post-game, Mourinho stated “I told my players that they cannot improve a lot from what they were doing in the first half. I was not asking for Paul to improve because I was already happy with what he was doing in the first half”. Again, who knows what his true thoughts are. The truth is that both Herrera and Matic were excellent for the full 90 minutes – the knives were out for Pogba after his first half performance. After the media hype alleging he was offered to Manchester City in January, and the on-going saga of his relationship, or lack thereof, with Mourinho, the articles were writing themselves. The only impact he had on the game was his failure to track City’s midfield runners, and losing the ball in dangerous areas.
It was obvious, though, that he was anxious to be the player to spark United into life, and it was his overplaying that caused him issues. Several times he got the ball, and embarked on a mission to try and beat two or three players inside his own half. He did demonstrate his ability, but he was not using his immense talent in the right way. In going on to lose the ball, a simple pass would have been the better option, and it is that maturity and game management that is missing from his game and has doubtless frustrated Mourinho over the course of this season, to the point of removing him from the side.
For him then to score a quickfire double, within 92 seconds of each other, thankfully demonstrated why the club has invested so heavily in him, and why Mourinho persists with him. It has been talked about all season, and the reality is that he is a free spirit and a player who believes he is the best player in the side. It is therefore vital that when he plays, he is accommodated and freed of the defensive responsibilities he has so often demonstrated he is either unable or unwilling to perform. As Gary Neville said on Sky Sports “He is a fantastic footballer and he makes Manchester United a better team… The Manchester United badge carries a large responsibility. Manchester United fans don’t want robots, they want characters, but it’s then demonstrating it on the pitch and doing it consistently”. The second half outing from Pogba showed exactly what the fans want and can be proud of. At his best, Pogba plays with arrogance, and most importantly for this side, unpredictability. His goals gave his team mates belief, and this side require him to be a talisman who can drag his side forward and provide the thrust of the creative impetus that so often this season has been perceived as lacking.
Pogba himself relished being a part of a midfield three: “It’s hard to make this run in a two, because you have to stay and you have to control. When we have three players, I know Matic will stay behind, and you have more freedom to go in front”. He then gave a further insight into the influence of the latest addition to United’s coaching staff, Michael Carrick is having on him: “After the game, every game, he shows me the video and says to make those runs. He’s someone who’s helped me a lot, every time after training he says ‘Come and look at this run, you can kill because nobody can stop you’”.
This was the Paul Pogba Manchester United need, and he did it when it counted against the best opposition in the country. It was a delight to see him at his best, but both he and the coaching staff know it has not happened enough this season. Much like the performance of the team and the turnaround, this performance could prove a catalyst for him to move to the next level, and perhaps most importantly earn the trust and approval of his manager to influence games high up the pitch.
4. Alexis Sanchez showed up
Thankfully Alexis Sanchez made a significant contribution in this game, to follow on from his goal and assist at home to Swansea. It has taken a long time for a player of his calibre to settle. He has an age and profile which dictated that he was expected to make an instant impact. Lack of effort has not been the issue, and perhaps similar to Pogba he has been too keen to be the individual that makes the difference. This had led to him surrendering possession constantly, and embarking on numerous unsuccessful dribbles and wild, speculative shots.
It was the tenacious run of Sanchez on the right side and subsequent ball in to Herrera, who chested down expertly to Pogba, which led to the first United goal and ultimately turned the tide. He then provided a glorious ball over the top of the defence for Pogba to head in his second. This required the sort of quality combined with composure that he had previously struggled to execute in his United career to date.
Confidence and the sense of value within a team are key for any player, and Sanchez appears to be entering a rich vein of form. He will continue to exhibit his feverish work rate and will to win. It looks hopeful that he will be able to add a genuine cutting edge and creativity that was expected when he arrived in January.
5. Smalling silenced his critics
Sky Sports took only minutes to dig out the archive footage from 2012, and the last famous time that City captain Vincent Kompany bullied Chris Smalling and put his side in front in a league-deciding derby game. That had hung over Smalling for a long time, much like his pea-brained red card at the Etihad a couple of years later.
His obituary had more or less been written at half time in this encounter, as he looked completely out of his depth. He has long been criticised for his distribution which had been well evidenced in the difficult first half, and his basic defensive duties were neglected in the early stages of this encounter.
Many fans will still not be convinced that he is a player you can hang your hat on moving into next season, but it was a glorious moment to see him netting what turned out to be the winner from another excellent Sanchez delivery. Joy was etched across his face, and it clearly meant a huge amount to a player who has a clear desire and affection in representing this football club.
He does have obvious failings as a footballer, but he demonstrated his resolve and strength of character in the second half turnaround, and he is clearly held in high esteem by his colleagues.
Next up for United is a home fixture against bottom of the pile West Brom which represents an excellent opportunity to gain further momentum as we enter the closing stages of the season. It is vital to finish the season strongly in order to harvest belief amongst both fans and players that greater success awaits next season. Whilst this was a fantastic derby day, there remains a lot of work to be done.