A bold line-up
With so much of the build up to this game focusing on the perceived attitudes of the two managers, Jose Mourinho’s ostensibly attacking line-up was something of a surprise. The performance of the team, particularly in the first half, did nothing to dispel the commonly held view of both managers but the manager can’t be criticised for being negative with his line-up.
But here’s the rub…
He can’t be criticised, that is, for the most part. Victor Lindelof, the in-form defender at the club, sat on the bench presumably because of the manager’s favouring of him in a three rather than a two. Phil Jones sat alongside him because he is only just back from injury.
Here’s the thing with Mourinho’s approach. It depends so much on clinical accuracy and that starts from the back. When Marcos Rojo and Chris Smalling are your centre-halves, you have to accept that distribution is not their strong point. Too many times possession was needlessly surrendered from the back and against a team who have working in possession as their strongest asset, it’s basically footballing suicide.
Is this a problem with the manager – well, you have to say by now he should know his team’s strengths and weaknesses. United were marginally better when Lindelof came on but that was more to do with the rollicking they would have got at the break.
And where one can certainly level the blame at the boss is that this was the same naivety he showed in this fixture last year. United played a system that was too detached; the front men were generally isolated of service lest they were the ones to provide it, but in picking so many, the rickety defence was much too often left unprotected for City to toy with as they want. Angry supporters afterwards complained about United’s attitude but the simple fact of this matter is they didn’t have the quality in personnel. The frustrating aspect is that there was surely a better solution from the available players.
That first half
For the first forty three minutes Manchester United were utterly abysmal. They were almost shrinking violets, with every aspect of their game below par. It seemed as if Mourinho had been naive, or over-estimated his team’s capabilities. Back to the point about clinical accuracy – it means when you have the ball, you have to make your time with it count.
United did not do that and not only did they deserve to be a goal behind, they deserved to be a goal behind in the embarrassing fashion it arrived. They deserved for it to be from a corner after all the talk about the respective strengths of the side; they deserved the diminutive David Silva to be the one all by himself scoring the goal.
Going behind provoked a response from United, just as it seemed to last season. Like last season, it seemed as if it might be too little too late, but they were the benefactors of a defensive slip. Marcus Rashford, when finally presented with an opening where he was asked to be clinical, was.
That second half and the end of the title race
United had to improve and they did. They at least carried some threat, and you could probably put that down to a half-time managerial blast. It was not enough to get anything from the game and City were the better team in every area of the pitch.
City set a new record for consecutive wins in a Premier League season and all but ended the title race for this season before Christmas. United are their closest challengers but aren’t good enough.
United have their own issues – you play Arsenal level defenders, you get Arsenal level results. They can improve, but there is a significant issue with that theory and it lies in the form of their noisy neighbours. City’s starting eleven cost over £50m more than United’s today and the difference was evident. It doesn’t matter if United can compete with their own resources because City will always be able to pay that little bit more. City already boasted the most in-depth attacking resources in the league and boosted their squad by paying a world record fee for a goalkeeper and world record fees for full-backs to eliminate their concerns of last season.
They have a squad which is as close to flawless as can be and they are accumulating the records thusly. United, for all the critics, are as close as any team can be, as is demonstrated by the fact that their own start is comparable with the best in the club’s own history. The final whistle provoked much celebration about United’s probable failure to win the league, but what does that say about those other clubs where the mocking comes from?
The win, and the new record, and admittedly, the style in City’s play, are sure to earn them a whole new raft of nauseating praise and compliments in the coming days and weeks. There is a profound difference between playing football the right way and the stockpiling of records that reflect your chequebook more than your philosophy.
The joy of football lies in the unknown or the achievement of something done in the purest of ways. That is what sport is meant to be about. Some might feel there is beauty in what is happening at Manchester City, but when it has stopped being sport, then it has surely stopped being entertaining. For those ‘neutrals’ who are blind to see that, by the time they do, it will be too late.
Graeme Souness described it as ‘scary’ for the rest. No, it isn’t, because it is not a competition.
Referee Michael Oliver has been in charge of the Manchester derby before. You may recall his failure to send off Joe Hart after the then-City goalkeeper went head to head with him. Today he had a big call to make when Kyle Walker went down looking for a free kick.
It looked like a dive on first viewing; it was effectively confirmed in replays. Oliver however awarded City the free kick, therefore removing the pressure which would have been inevitably on him, for Walker would have had to have been sent off, however early it was in the game. Who knows how the game might have panned out from that point.
This wasn’t a case of what if? in the conventional sense because City more or less deserved their win but Michael Oliver’s poor afternoon didn’t start and end with the decision to not send Walker off. David Silva should almost certainly have been red carded for a shocking late lunge, and Gabriel Jesus was also fortunate to have not have gone. City could have been down to eight and they would have had no complaints. They do not need this kind of assistance, they have everything in their favour.
This isn’t the balance of how things work out with better teams – you know the drill, better teams get awarded more penalties because they attack more. This was simply bad refereeing. City were the better team eleven versus eleven and United lacked the quality to get back into the game. That said, after all of that, they were then not awarded a penalty. Soft it may have been, but Herrera won the ball from Otamendi, and Otamendi didn’t touch the ball, but brought down the player. Oliver finally brought out his yellow card for diving. Jose Mourinho was generous in his assessment of Oliver’s performance.
At the end City might have easily doubled their lead.
For the second season running, City have been allowed to get dubious, yet deserved results at Old Trafford.
The Lukaku issue
For two weeks running, Lukaku’s presence at the back has caused significant problems. He forced De Gea into magnificent work at Arsenal and today he was a prominent figure in both goals.
Perhaps it’s a case of being badly out of form and confidence, but Lukaku has become almost a liability. Being on the periphery of games in his normal position is one thing (and if he hadn’t been such an issue at one end, this column might be more critical of his missed chance) but being dominated so easily as he was for the first goal and thrashing so wildly as he did for the second ended up being the decisive points in a game. It was a game United deserved nothing from and yet almost have theirselves to blame.
Mourinho is nearing the point where he has a choice to make over Lukaku. On the one hand, dropping him may do his confidence no good, but keeping him in the side might start to erode United’s strong hold on second place.
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