Follow Fergus: @fergusrockhard
1. There is a gulf between the sides
The debate about who is the biggest club in Manchester is a simple one given the fan base, self-generated resources and history of sustained success at Manchester United. However, it could not have been more painfully obvious in this latest Manchester derby as to who is currently the vastly superior football team. Manchester City didn’t perform to their highest standard, and yet they were in control of this game from beginning to end.
As is his custom, Mourinho was seeking to spin a different narrative: “You go for stats, that’s the way people who don’t understand football analyse football. We were in the game until the 80th – something minute and the third goal killed the spirit and morale of the team. One thinking is a bad performance and one thinking is a performance with mistakes. I think ours was a performance with mistakes”.
It is convenient that Mourinho pays no attention to match statistics following a game in which his local rivals commanded 65% possession – it felt like more; 17 shots to United’s 6; five corners to United’s one; and a 91% pass completion rate.
Manchester United were second best in every area of the pitch, and although Mourinho is correct that the game wasn’t put to bed until the 86th minute, it would have been a travesty if his side had come away from this game with anything to show for their efforts.
To claim that City won due to Manchester United mistakes is fantasy, as is the assertion that this was a good performance from United. Through his selection, Mourinho set out to contain City from the start, and from the opening few minutes it was clear that this game plan was not going to bear fruit. The approach was akin to how you would expect Burnley, Newcastle or Cardiff to set up. It is clear for all to see that this Manchester City side are of the very highest calibre. Defeat was always likely, and the score line was no surprise. The tactics adopted, however, were a disgrace. For a club with the resources available and the highest wage bill in the league to play with so little purpose or creativity is unacceptable.
2. Standards continue to slip
Jose Mourinho was employed by Manchester United as a serial winner. You ‘know what you are getting’ when he arrives at a club. The football is rarely pretty, his demeanour can tarnish the reputation of a club, and his methods are short-term. However, everywhere he has been he has won trophies and battled at the top end of Europe’s elite leagues. The problem with his reign at Manchester United is that he has emphatically failed to deliver his usual level of results. His side are left in 8th position and now have a negative goal difference. The Premier League table is beginning to take shape and the once-feared Red Devils are a laughing stock. There is no identity, no plan, no continuity, and no joy. When the results are stripped away, what are you left with?
Manchester United, as we hear frequently in the media, are a proud club with strong traditions of attacking football. In the summer of 2016 when he was appointed manager, he stated “I feel great… I’m ready for it… I think we can put our club into perspective. One perspective is the last three years; another is the history. I prefer to forget the past three years. I want to win. I need the supporters and players to feel that”.
That message of a winning mentality seems like a galaxy far, far away in the current climate. Mourinho has been keen to emphasise that finishing a very distant second in the division last season with his expensively assembled squad of players was as big an achievement as anything in his managerial career to date. This is utter nonsense, and a spin that no supporter should be gullible enough to accept. There are problems at the club from top to bottom, but the manager is the most vital cog in the machine. He was appointed despite the obvious disparity he has with the ideals and traditions of the club, and he has not delivered on what the fans and the club’s owners and directors believed to be his qualities, despite significant financial resources being made available to him. It is embarrassing to see the lack of identity and philosophy in comparison to what Guardiola has achieved in the same timeframe. There have been constant jibes and grumbles from Mourinho this season aimed at the board for not backing him in the transfer market, and there is some merit to his arguments. Certain positions need some quality recruitment. However, the money he has spent has generally recruited players of a lesser standard than those they replaced; and furthermore, if anyone thinks that the presence of Harry Maguire in the United defence would have made this into a different contest, then they are seriously over-estimating the ability of a rugged and unproven central defender in transforming a team that is mis-firing from back to front.
3. The recent run of good results was not sustainable
Since defeating Newcastle in the thrilling comeback at Old Trafford, results have been excellent. There is no better way to win football matches that mounting late revivals and last-minute winners. The poor first half performances have forced Mourinho to ‘let the horses run free’ to some extent, and players like Anthony Martial and Juan Mata have proven their talent and the side has demonstrated the attacking potential available.
The sequence of results, though, was never going to last. The victory away in Turin was a remarkable result and one of which the team was rightly proud. It would be remiss to omit the fact that involved a large element of good fortune. In this match, again against excellent opponents, they were thoroughly outplayed and were lucky not to be a few goals down before two late free kicks earned them an unlikely victory. Similarly, Chelsea comprehensively outplayed them at Stamford Bridge until the individual quality of United’s attacking players turned the game back in their favour. Bournemouth could have been out of sight before United decided to turn up in the second half of that game.
Certainly, the sequence of results has built some confidence and shows a level of resilience, but the team cannot continue to start games so poorly and expect to be able to turn results around. The fact is, Manchester United have a porous defence having only achieved one clean sheet all season. It is difficult to know how the side has gone from a mean-spirited albeit uninspiring team to a leaky bucket. What is clear, though, is that the strength of this team lies in the attack, and common sense should dictate that Mourinho should play to these strengths.
4. Pogba proves his value in his absence
Paul Pogba has attracted plenty of criticism since his arrival at the club for a world record fee. There are undoubtedly frustrating aspects to his play and he has certainly on occasion failed to deliver the extremely high standards that are demanded from him. His late withdrawal from the derby through injury hammered home the old adage ‘you only miss them when they’re gone’.
Pogba is head and shoulders above any other options United have available in midfield. Nemanja Matic has been treading water for some time. He offers little in defence, slows down attacks when in possession, plays frustratingly safe passes, and is incredibly immobile compared to the short, busy technicians in the City engine room. Herrera is a fan favourite who plays with tenacity and discipline, but truth be told, he does not belong at the truly elite level. He gave the ball away consistently in this encounter and doesn’t offer enough of a creative spark. Marouane Fellaini was the best of the midfield three and battles like a warrior. He won most of his personal duels and was the main defensive shield to United’s vulnerable defence. Despite this, the fact is he wouldn’t even make it on to the bench at Manchester City. He undeniably has qualities that Mourinho views as crucial commodities, but few of those qualities involve receiving the ball on the ground to his feet. He is a Plan B who is worryingly close to becoming Plan A.
Paul Pogba offers something different. He can play incisive and unpredictable passes, beat players, and play with an arrogance that his counterparts do not possess. His talent has never been in question. He is capable of individual moments of brilliance which are critical to a side like this United, who rely on individual moments of magic as opposed to any form of attacking cohesion.
Adding Pogba into the mix is like someone with the flu taking a vitamin C capsule. He won’t cure the disease, but he is a crucial part of the recovery process and provides an immediate boost when he is in the mix. Anything positive we have seen from United this season, Pogba has been a central feature.
5. Defeat doesn’t hurt enough
A symptom of the lowered expectations pervading the side was the fact that losing this derby match doesn’t seem to really hurt the players. Of course, they have all commented on social media about how it hurts, and they will come back stronger, but actions say more that words can. Most followers of United are mature and realistic enough to know that a win was never on the cards, but the baseline expectation should always be maximum effort and drive from the players.
In the final minute of the game, Raheem Sterling indulged in some flamboyant stepovers whilst standing on the spot, in a display of exhibitionism that would have prompted a snarling two footed lunge from Roy Keane if he was subjected to it. This was a player taking liberties, and the truth is he was indulged in doing so. Juan Mata came over for a word, but a side with any sort of genuine pride wouldn’t have let that incident pass off peacefully.
Of course, it is never a good idea for a side to lose discipline; but the fact that only one player even approached Sterling was an indictment at how they have regressed to a feeling of inferiority compared to their neighbours.
Much improvement is needed from this point in the season to salvage anything positive from the campaign. The talent is there within the squad, but the mentality is still fragile, and the team continue to be hampered by their manager. There has been little to suggest that this side can overhaul the gap to the top four, as each of the other top six sides continue to improve whilst United have regressed. This derby game has brought us back to earth with a bump, and the response of the players will dictate whether the season offers any hope of the top four or silverware, or a mediocre sleep walk to mid-table obscurity.