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This decisive derby victory essentially seems to have sealed the title for Manchester City as they set a Premier League record of 14 consecutive wins against their most fierce rivals, and opened up an eleven-point gap at the top. It was predicted the game would be pulsating and fiercely contested, and as a viewing spectacle it delivered. Here are five things we learned.
1. The Best Team Won
Manchester City deserved their victory. Romelu Lukaku’s late blast into the throat of Ederson, who made a double save from Mata’s follow up, could have rescued a point for United late in the game. It would have been a goal they did not merit. The stats don’t tell the whole story, but they paint a picture, as City dominated in every way conceivable: 65% possession, twice as many passes made, 82% passing accuracy to United’s 69%, 14 shots to United’s 8, and a large territorial advantage. City won, and in all honesty deserved to win by more. “We were better” said Guardiola after the game. The simple truth.
In fairness to United, and it is unfortunate having to concede this, they were beaten by a spectacular side, who may turn out to be the best we have seen in the Premier League era. They have only dropped two league points all season after all. United are currently the best of the rest, but they were blatantly out-classed by a side who may go on to break more records on their march to the title this season. Guardiola took time to adjust to the English game last season, but he has recruited well, most importantly coached his team to play the way he wants, and they are executing his unique brand of football impressively, resembling his great Barcelona side.
It is easy to be critical of Mourinho – and I will be later – but it is important to acknowledge that it is difficult for anyone to compete with Guardiola when he is getting it right. He has produced exceptional sides in three countries now. It is extremely difficult to know how best to set up against this City side, as they are so well-drilled, confident and assured in possession, as well as the execution of their game plan, that it seems nearly impossible to outplay them.
2. It was a Clash of Styles
Both Mourinho and Guardiola have had the same length of time in charge at their respective clubs. They have enjoyed similar budgets, and both inherited talented squads. Mourinho will claim he had a weak playing staff, but I honestly don’t believe, even now, that there is a massive disparity between the squads in terms of talent.
United and City are each, at this stage, a reflection of their manager and his methods. Guardiola has a defined style. His players set up in a highly structured, yet slick and fluid system, where each player takes responsibility on the ball. Possession is retained for extended periods through incisive, often short, passing interchanges, and intelligent movement from the doubtlessly exceptional players they have, notably De Bruyne and David Silva. He has also improved players, none more so than Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane.
United have been moulded into a spirited side; defensively disciplined but lacking any defined style. It varies from game to game dependent upon the opposition. The fact that City don’t alter their style, regardless of opposition or playing home or away, is a sign of their quality. Although the United team selection for this game appeared superficially positive, including both Martial and Rashford with Jesse Lingard, there was never any intent to impose themselves upon this game. Initiative was surrendered to City to dictate, whilst United sought to feed off their scraps and hit on the break.
Going back to my first point, Mourinho has not improved players in his time at the club, or created a system that allows them to do anything other than attempt to contain the higher quality opposition they face, even when at home. He has improved them in terms of picking up wins that had been draws last season against the mediocre teams, but he has failed to create a side to genuinely compete with the best. Even last week against Arsenal, they were comprehensively outplayed despite winning. Mourinho clearly thinks that this approach is enough. If it brings trophies, it will be. However, with the fans chanting ‘Attack, Attack, Attack’, and City fans mockingly singing about Jose parking the bus, there are rumblings of discontent at Old Trafford. Guardiola has produced a far superior footballing side in the same time with similar resources.
United in possession, particularly in the first half, were dreadful. They had no answer to City pressing other than to hit the ball long, a tactic that reaped few dividends until they fortunately profited from Fabian Delph’s error to draw level. They were unable to retain possession, and barely even tried to mount an attack until going behind.
3. Lukaku was the Difference
Romelu Lukaku is an easy target after his performance, but the fact is he contributed massively, in a negative way, to the result. For all of City’s dominance, their goals both came from set pieces. Prior to the game, the perceived wisdom was that United had the edge in terms of height and physicality, and their best chance of a result was through set pieces.
For David Silva’s opener, it was Lukaku who was beaten to a header from a corner by Nicolas Otamendi. For the second, he produced an atrocious attempted clearance under no pressure from a David Silva free kick into the box. He was directly culpable for both goals conceded.
In attacking terms, he had a very difficult game as he had limited touches and few chances as United failed to dominate for long stretches of the game. However, as a striker he is ultimately judged upon taking his chances. He blazed an effort over from just inside the box following a promising break in the second half, followed by his 86th minute close range effort that was fired into the City keeper’s throat. Despite the goalkeeper excelling himself, a player of Lukaku’s value and status should have buried it.
At present, he does not look confident. Some of his performances have been harshly judged, and there is no doubt he is suffering as a result of some of the negative tactics adopted by Mourinho. The simple fact is, though, he should be offering more, especially in this type of game. He is an athletic specimen, perhaps the best pure athlete in the division. My worry for him as he signed was that he wouldn’t punch his considerable weight, and unfortunately that has generally been the case this season. He was unable to bully and harass the vulnerable City defence, and failed to take his chances when they did arrive.
Lukaku is still young and hopefully will improve. I have my concerns about him against the top teams. His hold up play is not good enough, his touch is poor, he is not always on the same wavelength as his talented team mates, and he does not make the most of his very obvious attributes. When he clicks into gear he can be monstrous; unfortunately, he has been unable to produce the goods in recent weeks. With the return of Zlatan Ibrahimović, he should worry that his position is under threat.
4. Mourinho was making excuses
Mourinho is not a manager to give much notice to game statistics, and was in no mood to concede that his side was outclassed, preferring to bemoan refereeing decisions. “It was like last season. Exactly the same, you can speak about anything you want, you can bring any football theory, you can bring the stats, the ball possession, you can bring everything you want – but like last season it is a huge penalty in a crucial moment in the game”.
Mourinho was referring to the incident where Ander Herrera dived in the box to try and win a penalty, and was booked for his efforts. This was not a refereeing mistake, unfortunately he got it spot on. Herrera did dive – it was desperate times at a desperate point in the game. I don’t blame Herrera for doing it, I only wish he had been successful in conning Michael Oliver into awarding a spot kick. But it was not an error, and United were not hard done by.
This is typical Mourinho, we have seen it many times before throughout his tenures at Chelsea, Inter and Real Madrid. He will realise that he was not unlucky, but it makes for a better narrative to talk of it as a close game with small margins, decided only by the error of an official.
Guardiola beat Mourinho on all levels in this game, and looks set to completely eclipse him in the league. Mourinho remains the best of the rest, this does not make him a poor manager, but the gulf between the two sides was huge and he is keen to divert attention from that harsh reality.
5. Bravery has been re-defined
I wrote last week about the huge commitment and determination of the United players in earning their victory at the Emirates. That effort and doggedness remained on show, and United remain a spirited group who are difficult to score against and tough to beat. In most other seasons, their league form would have been good enough to put them firmly in the title picture at this stage of the season. It is important to keep that in context.
Growing up, most of us were taught to believe that bravery in football was a robust tackle, a thumping header or a crucial clearance. Guardiola’s teams, including this most recent composition, have educated us to show that bravery is always demanding the ball, accepting it in any position, and playing an unrelenting brand of football. Granted, they frustratingly ran down the clock at the end by playing the ball into the corner and winning throw ins, but they had proven their point by that stage.
United offered plenty of the traditional style of bravery, and for that they cannot be faulted. The frustrating thing is that when they did start to play, each time after falling behind, they showed that they can offer a lot more than they did in the first half, and in other games against Liverpool and Chelsea.
Maybe given a few days, the result and performance will feel less deflating. Maybe it is difficult to offer a balanced and fair perspective after being battered by your City rivals. After all, United were missing their best player in Paul Pogba. Unfortunately, on a day like Sunday, I don’t think Pogba could have changed the result. United too often by-passed their midfield, and allowed City to dictate proceedings. Bournemouth visit Old Trafford on Wednesday, offering an immediate opportunity to return to winning ways. It is difficult to imagine a route back into a title race, but it is only December and perspectives can change very quickly in football.