It is no coincidence that Manchester United’s 40-game unbeaten streak at Old Trafford ended after and with Premier League defeats to arch-rivals Manchester City.
There was a hint of irony around the manner of defeat. City failed to dazzle or cut United to ribbons – its goals instead came from two set-pieces and shambolic defending – and when it took a 2-1 lead, Pep Guardiola, ever the football visionary, took off his main striker, Gabriel Jesus, and replaced him with a defender, Eliaquim Mangala.
City dived, hacked and stomped its way through the game but despite that remained supremely dominant throughout. It won the ball high up the pitch, starved United of possession and pinned Mourinho’s men so deep in their own half not even the blistering pace of Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford offered much of a threat on the counter.
Jose Mourinho – ever the opportunist – was quick to pounce on City’s failure to open United up from open play and Guardiola’s somewhat cynical substitutions as if to immediately validate United’s performance and tactics.
Throw in Michael Oliver’s reluctance to book City players for some blatant, cynical fouling, diving while the likes of Rashford and Ander Herrera were booked for dissent and diving respectively and all the ingredients were there for a cliché post-match whinge from Mourinho.
In claiming some sort of moral victory over Guardiola, Mourinho exposed why he will always struggle to consistently best his managerial rival.
It is perhaps true that City was not at its sparkling best. It is perhaps true that United’s defence impressively held the fort (outside of the two set-pieces from which City scored) and it is true that, at times, City resorted to every nasty tactic in the book to get the result, but it is also true that once against United was outclassed by its neighbours.
The numbers do not lie.
City had 61 per cent of possession to United’s 39 per cent – a statistic which, in all honesty, flattered the home side – and had more than double United’s shots (15-7). City beat United in every statistic of the game besides offside, yellow cards and fouls.
Still, Mourinho persisted with the narrative that because City goalkeeper Ederson was forced into two brilliant last-ditch saves, the first of which he should never had a chance of saving when Romelu Lukaku put his six-yard strike right on the keeper’s nose, and Herrera was denied a decent claim for a penalty that somehow United was City’s equal on the night.
For a manager who has built a career on chasing results over style, it was cringe-worthy display.
Somehow, because United had stopped City from playing its dazzling brand of free-flowing football, Mourinho had achieved his objective. He could stand after the game and say, “they’re not as good as you think they are”.
It was a similar story away to Liverpool, where United defended its way to a 0-0 draw and then at Chelsea, where United were soundly beaten.
And that’s the problem.
Mourinho is more concerned with stopping other teams from playing and less concerned with ensuring United is playing its best football.
Lukaku’s miss, while inexcusable, and general form in big games at United is symptomatic of a side which almost seems content with being second best.
Mourinho starves his most potent goal-threat of service and possession and expects him to finish the game with a 100 per cent shots taken to conversion rate. When that is the game you play, then you run the risk of being left short-changed.
Maybe you can accept the risk away from home, but at Old Trafford? Inexcusable, particularly when only a win would have sufficed for United.
United had nothing to lose and everything to gain on Sunday. A loss would make an already unlikely Premier League title almost impossible, a draw would have done much the same but a win? A win would have redefined the title race.
It would have placed doubt in City’s collective mindset at a crucial point in the season where games come thick and fast.
United had all the tools to test City. The fact that City’s defence looked so uncertain under the featherweight of pressure United applied only serves to increase the frustration that Mourinho set up so negatively once again in a big game.
There was a great quote from former United first-team coach Rene Meulensteen in the lead up to the derby which so eloquently summed up the problem United face under Mourinho.
“Mourinho is pragmatic. He calculates things, he minimises risk,” he surmised.
“Ferguson was the opposite — he maximises opportunities from the attacking sense. But we didn’t neglect that defensive side at all.”
This writer does not subscribe to the view that everything was rosy under Sir Alex Ferguson, or that he never played for anything other than a win, but it is hard to disagree with Meulensteen’s comments in principle.
Mourinho’s pragmatism has won him a lot of trophies and accolades – but it is stopping this United team, still a shadow of the great sides which proceeded it, from fulfilling its potential.
As long as the United manager continues to benchmark his team’s performance on how well it stops its opponents, United will remain a frustrating proposition.