At times during a frazzled, occasionally surly first season Pep Guardiola has looked a little culture-shocked, a man chafing at the edge of things. It has been an uncomfortable embrace, with a sense of a man half-in half-out of the door, pretending to like the tea, smiling politely, but still vaguely scandalised by the raggedness, the physicality, the lack of order.
Well, this was a bit more like it. On a tight, bruising night at the Etihad Stadium, with the season’s endgame on the line, Guardiola oversaw what must be the least Pep-ish Manchester City performance of his short time here.
To date Pep’s City have played like a team in search of new rhythms, some flickering future-vision of how the game might be played. Here they played like a team in search of a point at least, three at best. City dominated possession and territory in a dour, useful 0-0 draw that might have been a dour, useful victory but for the absence of David Silva and but for some fine defending by Manchester United, for whom Eric Bailly was an assured, athletic obstacle all night.
This was a delve into the recent past, and an awakening of a most unexpected presence. As City scuffled on the flanks and Yaya Touré rumbled through a congested middle, it was tempting to imagine a familiar mooching presence popping up on the touchline.
There hasn’t been much talk about Manuel Pellegrini this season. The memory of City’s own charmingly opaque, melancholy and – let’s face it – largely unintelligible Chilean, has more or less disappeared in the excitement of the new regime.
But Pellegrini was present, in spirit at least, glimpsed out of the corner of the eye in his oddly melancholy anorak, as City chucked out the whizzy ideas and went full Manuel for the night, selecting what was essentially a Pellegrini-shaped team for the most buttock-clenchingly vital fixture of the spring.
Gone were the positional experiments, the free radicals, the false twos and threes. City lined up with full-backs as full-backs, two strong centre halves and the old Touré-Fernandinho firm in the centre. This was a proper back four too, a square block of grizzled, shaven, tattooed, gnarly old Sky Blue capos.
It was a startling selection in its own way, and evidence of flexibility too, of a needs-must pragmatism from the great aesthete. The entire back six here – Kolarov-Kompany-Otamendi-Zabaleta-Touré-Fernandinho – could be on their way out or to the fringes in the summer.
Chuck in the oddities of Claudio Bravo, the goalkeeping equivalent of a handsome stage set that turns out to be made of sugar paper and collapses the moment you lean on it, and that’s a pretty odd-looking team, and some way off the giddy dreams of that 10-game unbeaten run in autumn.
It worked, though. City dominated the second half. They did so playing like the City of recent memory, a smothering, muscular team with good width and power in the centre, but just lacking the devil of Silva to turn possession into goals.
José Mourinho had gone all-out for speed in attack, with Marcus Rashford flanked by Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Anthony Martial. The early moments saw Mkhitaryan pushed up front against the last defender. Rashford took a position to the right in direct opposition to Aleksandar Kolarov, who for all his qualities runs these days like a man lumbering off in pursuit of a disappearing city bus with four bags of shopping in each hand.
But after some early thrusts it was City who pushed United back, stretching them on the flanks not in the usual Pep way, with overloads and zippy triangles, but with a steady pressure. The full‑backs began to get a grip. Well‑timed tackles were executed, gristle and muscle and knowhow holding sway. United were hanging in there a little as Kevin De Bruyne began to pull the strings, the most astute and surgical passer of a ball in either attack.
There was still time for Marouane Fellaini to get himself sent off as the game entered its final knockings. United’s chief midfield obstacle had spent 83 minutes rumbling around the centre circle like a vast Soviet-era combine harvester chewing up the ground, swallowing rabbits and squirrels, bouncing off tree stumps.
At which point Fellaini fouled Sergio Agüero three times in a rapid-fire combination punch, the last a reaction to Agüero’s invasion of his personal space that saw him bend down like a stork inspecting an oyster and clonk foreheads. Fellaini was rightly red-carded, leaving the field in some distress, presumably at his own foolishness.
By the end a point for each side looked fair enough. City were unusually cautious, leaving Gabriel Jesus on the bench too long, stretched thin by circumstance and by the strangeness of fighting for the scraps of the season. But they were given an edge here by the shadow of that hard, powerful, seasoned team Guardiola has spent so long trying to dissolve, and a point well‑earned by a group of players not quite ready to shuffle off just yet.