Reaction from today’s win against Manchester City.
A nasty taste
Congratulations Manchester City, in advance, for becoming champions of the Premier League. They have been the better team this season, the better team by the distance that is shown in the points, and they will go on to break Premier League records this season.
This was far from a vintage City performance for the most part. They were below par and relied heavily on United shooting themselves in the foot (more on that in a minute) and then the rapid and alarming drop in confidence that saw a comfortable display turn into one where United could have been four down before half time.
The sight of Pep Guardiola jumping down the touchline, celebrating and gesticulating as his team galloped away into the ascendancy, left something of a sour taste in the mouth. City were better, for that period, and have been better. This isn’t a point about dignity in victory, but dignity full stop – Guardiola’s antics this season have often been condescending and bordering on pathetic. There was Redmond of Southampton, there was also yesterday’s ‘revelation’ about Raiola.
For someone blessed with all the advantages Guardiola has, it’s somewhat bewildering to see him not only accept all the platitudes, but behave as if he’s coaching Morecambe. He may be a brilliant coach but this City team isn’t the evidence of it. It’s the evidence of what happens when you throw enough money at something. His lack of class exposes an ugly side of this supposed beautiful football. Judging by the way the press have lapped up the Spaniard’s behaviour this season, it’s unlikely to be presented in the tasteless light it should be. (Guardiola’s condescending manner in interviews, telling people they don’t understand football, as he appeared to do a couple of times to Sky’s Geoff Shreeves, doesn’t show him in the best light either.)
United’s victory was a timely reminder about the virtue of coaching — you know, that quality Guardiola is heralded for. Mourinho got a hold of the game at half-time and whatever he said absolutely transformed his team’s performance. It’s not the first time he’s done it, and not the first time he’s done it from a 2-0 deficit away from home in recent weeks. This win won’t change the overriding narrative people are desperate to paint about Mourinho being yesterday’s man as opposed to Guardiola but let all the detractors know that this was a thrilling comeback by a team playing football in the right way, the Manchester United way. It’s unlikely, as pointed out, to change opinions, but Mourinho comes out of this weekend with much more credit and dignity than his much-lauded opposite.
There is the quiet, but not-so-insignificant, point that City can’t win the league earlier than United won it in 2000.
Everything about the first half summed up United’s major issues. For around twenty minutes United held out, enough for it to be described as a comfortable performance. Then the jitters set in. Ashley Young’s handball was the first of two penalty escapes for the converted full-back (both of them extremely fortunate), and Antonio Valencia’s erratic clearance provided the corner from which City took the lead. Vincent Kompany evoked memories of 2012 by making a mockery of Chris Smalling’s attempt at marking to give his team the lead.
United were then all over the place for the period before half time and 2-0 was a hugely flattering and generous score. Any greater score than that and a comeback would have been almost impossible.
It may seem harsh to be so critical about Chris Smalling and the others, after such a win, and after Smalling scored, but it is on all of the occasions where United haven’t recovered which have undermined their title challenge this season. Because you don’t always come back from two goals down.
Jose Mourinho said the team and the players aren’t as bad as people think they are. He referred to the improvement in all areas in this season compared to last and he has a point. And as been pointed out on this website and on our podcast, it’s not necessarily about matching City’s level, but reaching a level of consistency against the other sides in the league. The obvious way to help, the most obvious area that needs addressing is having a more solid defence.
On the podcast this week, Dave wondered if this game might show us something in the character of these players that suggests they’re up for a title fight next season. He had a point.
Blue Pogba on a red letter day
I tweeted late in the second half that for Pogba it was the worst of times and the best of times. In the first half he was so poor that describing him as a passenger would have been kind. His second half performance was so good that he could be just as fairly described as inspiring as a Keane or a Robson.
Pogba is at his best looking for ways to damage the opposition. Against Arsenal, his other stand out game this season, he controlled the pace of the game and was the conductor of all that was good. Today he caused significant damage by getting between the lines; to do that, he had to forget his opponent and concentrate on the influence he could make. It could be an important lesson for both player and manager as to how best to use him. If he can be this good in a game like this then he has the potential to run the league.