At the end of the season, when the story is told about how Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho did in their first year in Manchester, they may both look back on this draw as a useful result if it helps with the business of finishing in the top four. Yet it still felt slightly unsatisfactory for Manchester City after their second-half superiority and it was a strangely subdued derby at times, lacking any real incident until the moment late on when Marouane Fellaini reminded us of his worst traits.
Fellaini was so incensed by his red card – and so determined to prolong the argument with Sergio Agüero – it needed a clutch of Manchester United colleagues to usher him away. It was a display of hotheadedness that might warrant a Football Association charge and, not for the first time, it was difficult to find any mitigation for a player who has a history of violent acts. The difference this time is that Fellaini did not get away with it in the way he often has. His butt on Agüero was committed directly in front of the referee, Martin Atkinson, and could easily have sabotaged United’s night but for some more clear-headed thinking from the other players in red.
On the balance of play, Guardiola can certainly reflect his side had enough chances to secure the win that would have moved them above Liverpool into third position. Instead, they remain in fourth, a point behind Jürgen Klopp’s team but with a game in hand. United are a point further back, on the back of a 24-match unbeaten run in the league, and Fellaini ought to be relieved his team-mates managed to withhold a late onslaught during which the substitute Gabriel Jesus, returning from injury after 10 weeks out, thought he had scored a late winner. The Brazilian had strayed offside as he headed in Agüero’s cross and the game was denied a dramatic conclusion.
Unfortunately for City, this was one of the rare occasions when Agüero was let down by his finishing, turning the game’s first clear chance against the post and then missing the target with a decent opportunity in stoppage time. In between, there were other opportunities for Agüero and his team-mates but, for the most part, they were only half-chances and too many were aimed straight at David de Gea. Kevin De Bruyne featured prominently but, for all their possession, City missed David Silva’s influence against a side who showed the resilience that comes with not losing in the league for six months. To sum up the second half, the home side accumulated 117 passes in the final third of the pitch. United managed seven.
Perhaps it was tactical on Mourinho’s part to play more conservatively after half-time. Yet in the opening 45 minutes Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, interchanging positions across United’s front line, often had the pace to trouble the three thirtysomethings – Vincent Kompany, Pablo Zabaleta and Aleksandar Kolarov – in City’s defence.
Rashford also had the beating of Nicolás Otamendi and, unfortunately for Claudio Bravo, his presence will always encourage City’s opponents. Bravo had to go off in the 79th minute after injuring himself catching the ball and, if City are to sustain a title challenge next season, it feels imperative they bring in a more trustworthy goalkeeper. United’s best opportunity came from one of his mistakes even if, to give him his due, Bravo spared his own embarrassment by saving the shot from Mkhitaryan.
The pattern of the game shifted in the second half, with Leroy Sané and Raheem Sterling finding more space and Agüero working manfully to unsettle City’s opponents. City always look better when Kompany is playing and Guardiola’s only complaint afterwards was they could not be more clinical with their chances.
United played with great discipline until Fellaini, booked moments earlier for a foul on Agüero, challenged the same player again and everything quickly escalated. Agüero went down for a second time and Fellaini lost the plot, believing the striker had exaggerated his fall to try to conjure up a second yellow card. What followed was a clear sending-off and Mourinho should have criticised his player rather than blaming Agüero, remarking he had seen the Argentinian in the tunnel and “no broken nose, no broken head, his face nice as always”. Agüero not needing a hospital was no excuse for Fellaini’s stupidity and he will miss Sunday’s game at home to Swansea City, plus the trips to Arsenal and Tottenham.
Mourinho also reported that Timothy Fosu-Mensah had joined the club’s lengthy injury list during his short time on the pitch as a substitute but this was also a night when Daley Blind might have shown United’s manager he can cope in central defence alongside Eric Bailly, rather than needing to rush back Chris Smalling and Phil Jones from injury. United’s centre-backs had fine matches – as did Fellaini until the late flashpoint.