The Manchester derby ended up going red, but while United ultimately deserved the points, they needed a beneficial refereeing decision to get there.
1. At the Etihad on October 6, Manchester City beat Manchester United by six goals to three. It was a breathless afternoon of football, and at the time it looked very much like a demonstration of how much United still had to do to be able to challenge at the very top of the Premier League table. Three months on, three matters stand out beyond any others from this Manchester derby.
Firstly, The Curse of Saturday Lunchtime Fixtures strikes again. United vs City at Old Trafford was never going to be lacking for atmosphere, but as with so many other games played at lunchtime, kicking off so early seemed to knock the stuffing out of the occasion from a footballing perspective for its first 55 minutes or so, and although the last 30 offered enough excitement and controversy to satisfy most appetites, it remains the case that 12.30pm feels like too an early a time to be starting these matches.
2. Secondly, Manchester United have spent much of the last three months catching Manchester City up. The gap is now down to one point and United are now only six points behind leaders Arsenal, and while one of these Manchester giants continues to look as though it’s heading in one direction, the other seems to be heading in the other. This was a scrappy game of loose passes and opportunities not being taken, but there was one happy team and one unhappy team out on the pitch at Old Trafford on this occasion, and it was very clear which was which.
Although this was an imperfect performance from both teams, United’s imperfections were more encouraging than City’s. United had conceded ten goals in their last two Manchester derbies, but they seldom looked like adding to that tally on this occasion, during which they had little difficulty in taming City’s options in attacking positions for much of the match. City continued to look as though too many of their players are not operating to their the fullest of their abilities.
3. And thirdly, getting the rub of the green from a fortuitous refereeing decision can really turn a game on its head, just as much as any moment of brilliance from any particular player. From the point at which City took the lead to the point at which United drew level, it had started to look a little as though City had overcome a wobbly first 50 minutes or so to get back on top of their game. But then came a highly contentious refereeing decision, and in the space of four minutes the score was turned completely on its head. In a game of narrow margins, these are the points at which matches – and perhaps even league titles – are won and lost.
4. Manchester City arrived at Old Trafford off the back of a mixed return after the World Cup. Their 4-0 win against Chelsea in the FA Cup had been impressive, even though it seemed to be played against eleven strategically-placed scarecrows wearing Chelsea shirts. Their 1-0 win at Stamford Bridge a few days earlier had been an object lesson in control, but in contrast to this, they were sluggish in drawing 1-1 with Everton, and losing to Southampton in the EFL Cup, even if it was played with a much-changed team.
That uncertainty was still present and correct at Old Trafford. City repeatedly ran themselves into brick walls of their own creation throughout the first half, and even after they started defrost in the early stages of the second and even took the lead, they failed to kill the game off at a point when United’s composure seemed a little shaken and Old Trafford had fallen a little quiet.
And while the call to allow United’s first goal was questionable to say the least, City’s defending for the second demonstrated what can happen to the best of defences when a team is rattled by a referee’s decision, just enough of a degradation in concentration to make a truly pivotal difference to the outcome of the match and perhaps consequently the title race too.
5. Manchester United, on the other hand, arrived at Old Trafford in health so rude that there’d even been talk of whether they could challenge for the Premier League title this season, talk which will now reignite with them being just six points behind Arsenal at the top of the table. Since their return from the World Cup they’ve played six games and have won all of them, scoring fifteen goals and conceding just the one. And on top of this, watching from the stands was 6’6″ Dutch man-mountain Wout Weghorst, who has presumably been signed as a battering ram for the purposes of elbowing their way back to the top of the table.
6. When you’re ceding getting on for two-thirds of possession to your opponents, your shape needs to be good and your defence needs to be on top of its game. Manchester United managed both of these, with Fred snapping at Kevin De Bruyne’s heels, Aaron Wan-Bissaka effective in getting in Phil Foden’s way and Tyrell Malacia composed when he was in control of the ball and incisive in the tackle when he wasn’t. And United’s shape was excellent. They didn’t go for the sort of full on ‘heavy metal’ press that, say, Liverpool might attempt in such a game. Instead, one player would go chase down the man with the ball while everybody else sat tight, holding their position.
This rendered much of Manchester City’s attacking play impotent for pretty much the entirety of the first half. Haaland was invisible until the midway point in the half, when he had a shot charged down by Casemiro. De Bruyne, meanwhile, has found a way of playing with the facial expression that he carried throughout Belgium’s dismal World Cup campaign and Phil Foden was reportedly also on the pitch. It also meant that United didn’t run out of steam, and this persistence was enough to grab them all three points in the end.
7. City had a lot of possession, but so much of it counted for so little that this was nothing whatsoever for the United defence to get worried about. When City did get into the final third of the pitch, either passes started to go astray or United players got stuck into those in possession with a bite that lifted the home crowd every time they won the ball. Attempts on goal were practically non-existent.
The contrast with the occasions when Manchester United got to break was striking. The movement through midfield was slick and fluid. When they got possession of the ball, it felt as though the pace of the game had suddenly been increased. The noise of the crowd swelled behind them, and the movement looked good until the pass ran astray.
But at least when United did break, they did so so with some sense of purpose and created the clearest chances of the first half. Bruno Fernandes dragged a shot across the face of goal and wide. Rashford, put through twice in that left-hand channel by Eriksen, had a shot cleared off the line Manuel Akanji and a run blocked by Ederson after he’d taken a touch too many of the ball.
8. But if Rashford was getting into the positions and finding those narrow margins running away from him, Anthony Martial had an extremely anonymous 45 minutes before being withdrawn at half-time and replaced by Antony. It’s a week short of two years since Martial completed 90 minutes in the Premier League for Manchester United. We don’t know yet if the forward was replaced at half-time because of injury or ineffectiveness. It could be either; it might be both. But we’re long since past the point at which it really matters.
Ten Hag revealed in his pre-match press conference that there were concerns over Martial, but these seemed to dissipate before kick-off. “He’s fit, so he plays,” said the manager. Only he didn’t. Yes, United played much of the first half without the ball, but in and out of possession, there appeared zero intent from Martial to win the ball or hurt City with it. If it were anyone else, it could be attributed to a knock or a niggle. But it was entirely in keeping with everything we’ve seen from him for weeks, months, years now. “He can’t manage the load,” said Ten Hag when discussing Martial earlier in the week, and given United have put so much faith in the 27-year-old, it’s not unreasonable now to ask ‘why not?’
9. So what do you do, if you’re the head coach of a team which isn’t performing as you’d hope but you have infinite money? You throw on a £100m substitute, that’s what. Jack Grealish emerged, socks hugging his corn-fed calf muscles, to a cacophony of boos, but within two minutes he’d given City the lead. The opening stages of the second half had been heading this way. City had emerged with greater purpose and as the game started to finally open up they started to look more threatening in attacking positions, stretching the United defence rather than getting to within 40 yards of their goal and turning in on themselves.
But the goal game as a result of better movement from City players. Riyad Mahrez’s pass found De Bruyne, and his cross from the right-hand touchline dragged Casemiro in pursuit, opening up some precious space at the far post for Haaland and Grealish. Grealish was in the better position to head the ball wide of David De Gea and in.
10. When Manchester City are firing on all cylinders, they can afford for Haaland to drift in and out of games. When City destroyed United earlier in the season, Haaland scored three and added two assists. On this occasion, he was barely involved throughout the entire ninety minutes. All of this makes you wonder whether Haaland perhaps should even be left out of the team until everybody else is back on top of their game, because his absence from vast tracts of this game was notable and when City’s other players are struggling to create chances for him, it does start to look a little as though he shouldn’t even be on the pitch in the first place.
11. So, how do you define ‘interfering with play’, then? Can a player cause interference without touching the ball? When Casemiro threaded the ball through to Rashford with 12 minutes to play, there’s no question that he was a couple of yards offside. But crucially (apparently), Rashford didn’t touch the ball and Bruno Fernandes glided in behind him to shoot past Ederson to score.
Well, here is the offside rule, and it does state that a player is offside where they are “making an obvious action which clearly impacts on the ability of an opponent to play the ball”. Ederson had clearly moved his position to anticipate Rashford shooting. United supporters will obviously feel that Rashford didn’t make an “obvious action”, but it certainly looked as though City’s defenders had moved towards Rashford.
In other words, their actions were determined by Rashford’s movement and this was considered insufficient to pull play back, but it’s difficult to see how this could have been the case, considering that Rashford ran onto the ball as though he was to take it on before leaving the ball for someone else to shoot. Everything about his body language said that he was active until the last second of the move. How can this not be considering interfering with or influencing play?
12. And perhaps the influence of this goal stretched beyond merely pulling United level. Three minutes later they were in front, and this time the City had no-one really to blame but themselves when Alejandro Garnacho found himself too much space on the left and pulled the ball back for an unmarked Rashford to turn the ball in. It looked very much alike a lapse in concentration from players whose minds may still have been on the failure of the officials to pull play back a few minutes earlier.
13. Are Manchester United in the title race, then? Well, this would seem to be the case. They’ve now three straight Premier League matches since returning from the World Cup break and have momentum building. On this occasion, it really did feel as though the Manchester United of old were returning. Old Trafford has a sound about it on occasions like this, a sense of urgency which explodes to life at the slightest touch.
It only takes one crunching tackle, a good passing movement or the possibility of a counter-attack being launched and the nose swiftly rises to a crescendo. That sound has been all too absent for all too long from Old Trafford, but it was certainly back on this occasion, and it’s a sound that may well fill the rest of the Premier League with something of a feeling of foreboding.
And while Manchester United might have had fortune smiling on them for their equalising goal in this match, well, drawing all the way back it feels as though they did deserve the points from this game regardless, if we’re talking about it as a whole. Casemiro continues to play a role reminiscent of N’Golo Kante at his best, capable of turning up in several positions, winning possession, distributing the ball cleanly and efficiently, doing a simple and effective job which gives a feeling of stability to United’s third of the pitch which has often been glaringly absent in recent years.
14. And in the inverse, although Manchester City seem to have a valid complaint about the award of United’s equalising goal, they can have fewer complaints about the final result in an overall sense. They only managed one shot on target all afternoon, and although they improved slightly in attacking positions in the second half, they were blunt all afternoon. Haaland was blunt to uninvolved. Foden hasn’t been firing on all cylinders. De Bruyne sometimes gives the impression that he’s undergoing some for of existential crisis.
City have formidable resources at their disposal, and for all his railing against refereeing decisions in post-match interviews, Guardiola will surely already be fully aware that his team is falling some away short of reaching capability of the sum of its parts. Too many of their players didn’t really turn up this afternoon, his team has been blowing hot and cold for the last few weeks, and even though there are months of this season are left to play, time might even already be starting to run out if they are to successfully defend their Premier League title.
15. There will, of course, have been substantial celebrations at this goal from 200-odd miles south. Arsenal retain their five point lead at the top of the Premier League table without kicking a ball, and their North London Derby against an oft-enfeebled looking Spurs gives them an opportunity to open their lead back up to eight points again. The strange sense of disbelief that Arsenal could win the Premier League title this year is going to have to start to lift at some point.
16. The striking irony of the controversial nature of Manchester United’s equalising goal is that forensic analysis of this one moment with everyone deciding, after having watched it 500 times from a variety of different angles and at super slow-motion, that they were definitely right alone and that anybody who disagrees with them is a fraud, an idiot, or both.
Discussing the goal afterwards, refereeing guru Peter Walton told the assembled experts of BT Sport that this was just one of their moments was one of those points at which refereeing decisions become ‘subjective’. How ironic, with the game having done as much as it possibly could to have ironed all subjectivity out of the game altogether in recent years, that this should be wheeled out as a defence for this particular decision.
But this is a bit of a distraction. City are entitled to feel grumpy about the decision to award that equalising goal, but their overall performance suggested that they’re unlikely to be able to sustain a title challenge throughout the second half of this season. United’s performance was such that they could. The balance of power hasn’t completely ‘swung the other way’, as the hyperbolic will be claiming, but it’s certainly recalibrating itself in United’s favour and if there is a title race on, they’re as much a part of it as Manchester City at the moment.
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