Making predictions about Manchester United overcoming Manchester City in next season’s title race based on their Saturday comeback may be premature; nonetheless, there were encouraging signs of progress.
As was discussed on our YouTube show and our post-match reaction, it would also be misleading to suggest anything was deduced from the stunning victory in terms of United suddenly being a better team than City. Because they’re not. And the points gap between the sides, reduced though it was, is reflective of United’s own issues as much as it reflective of City’s dominant performance this season.
From the second City took the lead, United were all at sea; their confidence after a good early start looked shot and even though the Champions-elect could have had four or five goals in that twenty minute spell, this was not, as has been portrayed, City at their ‘mesmerising best’.
BBC’s Ian Cheeseman, a City fan, has his own YouTube blog which has been viewed many times by United fans over the weekend, and on it he featured reaction ‘as it happened’, from the over-confident, dismissive pre-game predictions to the mid-game crowing of Paul Lake declaring that this would be his favourite derby ever.
Ain’t no reaction like an over-reaction and there was the suggestion on Twitter that ‘conversation in the press room’ was centred around how embarrassing this defeat would become and if it could result in the sack for Jose Mourinho.
An hour later, and those same voices who were so heavily critical of United were notable in their mostly collective quiet about the surely inspiring words and motivation of the manager.
A few weeks ago, Manchester United were two goals down at Selhurst Park at half-time. A reaction, if not victory, had been expected on that occasion.
This time around, not even a reaction was expected. This was not just a coronation, it was an execution; the reading of the last rites, with that tendency for the press to use the phrase ‘power shift’ once more being prepared. Journalists were in their element, with an opportunity to heap praise on Pep Guardiola and scribe United’s, and Mourinho’s obituary, at the same time. It was a once in a generation opportunity, just as it was for those City fans ‘ole’ing every pass towards the end of the first half.
So it was understandable that those same journalists found such offence in United’s comeback that they could not bring themselves to give appropriate praise. The speed of Pogba’s brace seemed to unsettle reporters into a strong defence of themselves and their opinions over social media.
Then came the caveats.
This wasn’t the strongest Manchester City side. They had one eye on Tuesday. They should have had a penalty.
Comically, though surely by this point everyone had had enough, City’s £27m reserve full back Danilo then claimed United had achieved victory through ‘long balls’. United’s first goal was the most well-worked goal of the mach and their third, like City’s opener, came from a set piece. Even the condescending voices who try to portray Guardiola’s ‘style of football’ as the right way to play as opposed to Mourinho’s would be stretching to try and describe United’s equaliser as a genuine long ball.
It’s true, City did rotate, with Danilo one of the ‘second choice’ who cost almost as much as United’s most expensive defender on the day. Bernardo Silva, the £44m playmaker who has played as many times as any other City player, was also deemed one of those second choices. Ilkay Gundogan was the third player described as a reserve, and at just £20m, perhaps this was the most accurate. Still, the former Dortmund midfielder has enjoyed the benefit of the press consistently trying to describe him as better than Pogba for the majority of his stay in Manchester.
Should City have had a penalty? They should have had two. Ashley Young should have been sent off. So too should Fernandinho have been. When your team loses, you complain about these calls, just as United fans did when Claudio Bravo’s shin-high foul on Wayne Rooney last season went unpunished. Martin Atkinson is no favourite of Manchester United fans and he was clearly losing control of the game for a while on Saturday, but this wasn’t one of football’s greatest miscarriages of justice.
Perhaps the biggest and most relevant point is to do with City’s complacency. Again, it’s understandable. This was a team revelling in being described as the best ever Premier League side in history as early as December.
A team who faced the most lenient of sanctions when it was found they had repeatedly breached anti-doping regulations; a team who have not faced any serious scrutiny from the press on this matter.
A team led by a manager who has repeatedly claimed his side do not have a financial advantage in front of gathered journalists who apparently see these statements as perfectly valid. A team led by a manager who sees fit to run on to the pitch to confront opposing players and is widely praised for his ‘passion’ for doing so. This patronising and condescending attitude has inevitability crossed over into Guardiola’s behaviour, speaking to reporters to tell them they don’t understand football and most recently seeing fit to make that astonishing claim about Mino Raiola.
This was the first real indication that Guardiola has become rattled. A week ago they were being heralded as favourites for the Champions League and they were beaten so heavily at Anfield that a comeback that will bring progression seems unlikely. It represents the first difficult moment for Guardiola, whose largely underwhelming first season has been completely glossed over.
Because the consequence of all the praise for a team yet to achieve anything is the expectation that it will achieve all it is projected to. Their loss at Anfield was a difficult one for Guardiola to swallow because it was squarely on the manager’s shoulders. Some have generously described the Gundogan selection as the reason but the truth is that their defending was not what you expect to see from a team playing at that level. It went to show the value of coaching.
You can buy the most expensive defenders in the world but if you just put them together it doesn’t guarantee success. If you have limitations as a coach these will inevitably reveal themselves, and just as Mourinho receives valid criticism for United’s lack of attacking fluency, the same must be said for Guardiola for how horrific their defending was last season and how it is that area – an area he has admitted not coaching – that is letting them down at a critical point this time around.
The former Barcelona coach has received many platitudes for the form of the likes of Raheem Sterling. It has been said that even though these players come at a cost at least £50m, that is only one indicator of their potential, and so their improvement in form should mostly be attributed to their manager rather than this being a part of their own development. And the manager should get some of the credit because even if you do have a number of expensive players helping, it is not a foregone conclusion that players reach their potential.
Raheem Sterling, as an example, has reached the heights of his 2013/14 campaign with Liverpool, showing that he can score goals in a good team. Perhaps it would have been a better example of coaching helping him if he had put away one of his chances on Saturday rather than rashly thrashing the strikes. Of course, Guardiola will be given the benefit of the doubt; praised for the player’s expected development and this bad day will be put down to the player having an off-day.
City were desperate to render their defeat in Liverpool as an aberration and Guardiola’s explosive pre-game comments were the work of a man desperate himself, desperate to gain an advantage in any way possible.
The pressure was getting to him and so he went to a place no manager, not even Mourinho, has gone before. It matters not if Raiola did do what was alleged, nor does it matter the motivation behind it if it was true. These are the clockwork actions of agents on a weekly basis, the agents working on behalf of every single player, even Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, in order to agitate for a move, or, as is more likely, a new contract. Guardiola has previous for losing his cool and not handling pressure well; as well as revealing himself to be an undignified winner, he is proving to be a classless loser too.
United supporters could point to the exclusion of Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Juan Mata as examples of their own side being below strength. Even the selection of Ander Herrera in front of Scott McTominay raised eyebrows. And, of course, the defence United fielded continues to incite acute anxiety in supporters.
As said at the top of this piece, City were not quite as brilliant and dominant as portrayed. It took a 25th minute error from Valencia and lapse in concentration from Smalling to give their neighbours reason to finally get noisy. The hosts responded, and scored a smart second goal, before repeatedly cutting through a porous defence and being profligate with their own chances. Nonetheless, even if it wasn’t a 45 minute masterclass, it was a definite 20 minute spell of unquestionable superiority.
There can be little doubt that the comeback was instigated by City’s complacency; they were no longer concerned with winning the game, it was a matter of how many. This is a natural consequence when you are suddenly presented with an advantage you didn’t earn; a metaphor for City’s progress over the last decade, let alone in this game. Supporters who had barely made their presence known prior to the first goal, on this, the potentially most memorable day in their entire history, turned into mocking jackals at 2-0, cheering every single pass as if each one was a singular representation of the beautiful football bestowed upon them, as if each one was a reward for their die-hard support that has been tangible in the empty seats and turgid atmospheres.
On most occasions that would have been enough. Take Chelsea’s recent trip to the Etihad. Even at 1-0, even as defending champions, they seemed disinterested in having a competitive game of football because of the reputation of their opponent. It did not seem to occur to them that as defending champions, it was perhaps their responsibility to challenge that reputation.
United’s remarkable comeback doesn’t mean they have the tools in their squad to overcome City next season but it does at least show what they are capable of. If there is one thing that can be concluded, it is surely that United have rediscovered a certain amount of pride that has seemed to be sorely missing since Sir Alex Ferguson retired.
Their victory didn’t occur because they are better than their opponent, but because of a better attitude, better mentality and better coaching on the day, these extra qualities that extend beyond the chequebook.
So, how do United take this in to next season, and how can this progress manifest itself into a title-winning, or at least much more competitive, team?
Chris Smalling has been derided by fans, and has been criticised on our podcast often this season. His second half performance and, most importantly – even more important than the goal – his response, suggests he is worthy of his manager’s faith, but now that we know Jose Mourinho is capable of motivating his players to put in a much stronger second half showing than their first halves, the next step has to be assembling a better squad of players to better equip them from the start.
It means that as well as Smalling responded, and as admirably as Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia have adapted to their defensive repositioning, it is time for United to be ruthless so that they can challenge for the major honours.
There is some suggestion that Mourinho is adopting to United’s inherent need, a need that is essentially demanded by supporters, to impose themselves on opponents to truly express their potential. If they are inhibited, they create problems for themselves.
Yet there remains the potential for a convenient marriage of United’s, and Mourinho’s, philosophies. The manager has clearly embraced the occasional need to let the horses run freely. But it is clear that in order for them to be capable of delivering the effective game plan from the start then they need to be stronger in certain areas.
Saturday showed that the surgery required isn’t quite as drastic as some suggest. After all, United are approaching a very healthy points target and, in spite of how true it is that we’re still some distance from knowing what Mourinho’s best or even favoured team is, we are now seeing that he has a strong enough familiarity with his squad in order to get the maximum out of them. On this point alone it is surely now unequivocally proven that he is the best man for the job.
United are not good enough to be champions but they are better than every other team in the league and therefore even Mourinho’s biggest critics – even those who were keen to entertain the discussion he would seriously get sacked on Saturday – must concede that there is absolutely no question that the club have progressed significantly from the point he took over.
The difference between first and second place is represented by the money spent by both managers; just as one would suggest the difference between United and Liverpool is represented by United’s own greater spend.
There are those who will refuse this argument and insist that the difference is in the quality of coaches, but just as Mourinho’s obvious superiority in their respective first seasons in Manchester didn’t conclusively prove anything in his favour, neither does Guardiola’s own success this season prove anything in his. Those purists and self-appointed football lovers will insist that it is just as much about how you win as winning itself. Quite. That extends to on and off the field and it also extends to the entire season and not just how you played for three or four months. City, for all the fanfare, stand to win the same number of trophies over these two seasons with a much greater expenditure.
That praise for City has been inflated and overly generous, and that the criticism of United (particularly in the context of everything) has equally been over the top, does not mean that the improvements needed for United aren’t glaringly obvious.
Names like Milinković-Savić and Fabinho stand out as obvious names that would provide the significant and necessary upgrade in areas where United need them; Alex Sandro, as one of the premier left sided players in the world, is a dream name for that side as opposed to Danny Rose, who is potentially as unreliable as Luke Shaw.
These names and an extra centre-half would surely represent a good summer. One has to conclude that that extra centre-half will have to come from outside the club and that Smalling, Jones, and maybe even both Blind and Rojo could be looking for new clubs this summer if Axel Tuanzebe and Timothy Fosu-Mensah are to be given the squad promotion they deserve. United have the numbers to field two completely different defences, maybe even three, but it is of course quality and not quantity that they need.
Saturday’s euphoric result gives United supporters justified optimism for next season; there is an obvious need for perspective, but within that perspective it must surely be seen that United do not play City 38 times to decide the title. It is great that they have the potential to defeat their closest rivals, and to do so deservedly.
But next season’s title is surely more likely to be found by improving their consistency in other areas and the most obvious way of doing that is to have a team capable of being more proactive from the start rather than reactive from the break. The talk in the past few weeks has been about Mourinho changing his ways but maybe it doesn’t need to be so drastic as having one or the other.
At his best, Mourinho’s successful teams have generally played fantastic football in the first few months of the season before professionally controlling their lead in the second half.
The consistency of United’s squad is too erratic and unpredictable to achieve such a standard at present; therefore, it is a compromise of styles that United fans would not only accept, but surely also come to enjoy should it bring the success it historically has.