There was a time when a team of Pep Guardiola players would have unpicked a deadlock of this kind and when sitting deep in serried ranks against his players, as Manchester United did, risked serious embarrassment.
Not now. In a Manchester derby which reflected the distance between the old sparring partners and champion class, Manchester City ran into sand, straining every sinew to find a way through a wall of red, yet lacking the speed of thought and pass to do so. Their effort cannot be questioned, yet when it came to picking up the pace, they simply ran faster. Passing faster and smarter –altogether different qualities – were the real requirement.
The finishing of Guardiola’s side was poor, too, a Sergio Aguero strike against the base of the United post in the second half the closest they came to breaking the deadlock and the agony was compounded in the second minute of second half injury time when substitute Gabriel Jesus was fractionally offside as he found the net with a header from Aguero’s cross.
It was a measure of the game’s meagreness that the talking point was Marouane Fellaini’s craven stupidity – a clear head-butt on Aguero in the 84th minute and a straight red card for which he can have no complaint, despite the protestations which delayed his departure from the field. The Belgian had been booked for pushing the striker in the back in United’s late rear-guard action, seconds earlier. The sight of him, towering over an opponent, forehead to forehead, is a familiar one, contributing to why so many who follow United cannot accept him as one of their own.
One of the advertising hoardings, promoting an engine oil, described ‘150 years of innovation’ though the first half did not feature much clever propulsion. City were its better side, forcing David De Gea into saves twice in five minutes just beyond the half hour, but their struggle to make something of that superiority was the story of their season in microcosm.
They missed David Silva’s mercurial spirit, for sure. A pre-match big screen image to haunt Pep Guardiola listed the side’s best chance creators of this season: Silva topped that particular tree with 114 openings carved out. Without his presence to seize on the little pockets of space, Aguero dropped deeper to create an axis, though that left the side without anyone at the top when chances came.
Aguero was short of his best finishing, swivelling around in a weight shift which left Michael Carrick and Daley Blind off balance but then firing over. Raheem Sterling, restored to the side after four games on the bench, looked off it. A give-and-go with Aguero two minutes before the break sent him through for City’s outstanding chance of the first period but he, too, placed his shot over.
United were organised, it has to be said. Eric Bailey, starting his tenth successive game, did more to cement the reputation he has built these last eight months and made an impeccable 24th minute tackle when Leroy Sane burst into the left hand channel. Carrick was assured. The presence of Marouane Fellaini in central midfield reflected a United built to repel.
It was United who actually found the evening’s most exploitable opportunity by setting Marcus Rashford’s pace onto Aleksandar Kolarov and but they looked like a ghost of their former gladiatorial best and light years away from the last Manchester derby played on a Thursday, in which Andrei Kanchelskis’ 1994 hat-trick was the centrepiece of their 5-0 win.
There was also evidence of that profligacy which has been the story of their season, when Ander Herrera ran to meet a Henrikh Mkhitaryan free kick in the dying moments of the first half and put his back post header wide with the goal at his mercy.
Attacking became an alien concept to United when the game recommenced. Kevin de Bruyne took the ball beyond Herrera just beyond the hour and crashed the ball into the side netting. Aguero thrashed a shot over the bar when he took on a half clearance from Antonio Valencia, illustrating the pressure that United, with their serried defensive ranks, were creating as the deadlock went on. An Otamendi header was deflected over off Baily’s shoulder.
Fellaini’s dismissal left Mourinho looking for any available defensive reinforcement. Rashford was at right back before making way for the more genuine defensive presence of Ashley Young. United left with top four hopes intact after achieving what they and their parked bus came for: anything but defeat.
Manchester City (4-2-3-1): Bravo; Zabaleta, Kompany, Otamendi, Kolarov; Toure, Fernandinho; Sterling, De Bruyne, Sane; Aguero.
Substitutes: Caballero, Sagna, Fernando, Navas, Clichy, Jesus, Garcia
Manchester United (4-3-3): De Gea; Valencia, Bailly, Blind, Darmian; Herrera, Carrick, Fellaini; Rashford, Mkhitaryan, Martial.
Substitutes: Romero, Rooney, Lingard, Young, Shaw, Fosu-Mensah, Tuanzebe