Thursday night’s was a Manchester derby to sum up both sides’ seasons. For United, it was another draw stemming from good defensive organisation and toothlessness in attack. For City, it was yet another game where they dominated every stat apart from the scoreline, somehow drawing a game where they created enough chances to win multiple matches.
The temptation is to look at the league positions of both sides – they stay in fourth and fifth places, exactly where they ended last season – and point to the amount of money spent since this time last year: over £300m spent between them for no change whatsoever.
But it’s not quite that bad. Both teams are better than they were last season, and both are on a forward path rather than the backwards ones they seemed to be on only a year ago. Though perhaps that’s the least you’d expect for the amount of money spent, and the two superstar managers appointed.
If Manchester United’s main problem is in attack, and City’s is in defence, perhaps it’s unsurprising that they cancelled each other out – though presumably Jose Mourinho wouldn’t agree with that assessment, just as he didn’t after their draw with West Brom just a few weeks ago.
But if they have the opposite problem when it comes to getting the results, they share the same problem with results themselves: both teams have dropped far too many points at home. Indeed, of the combined 33 games that the two Manchester clubs have played at home, fewer than half have resulted in home wins. 15 have been won by the home sides, 16 have been drawn. They’ve each lost once at home. Losing isn’t the problem, drawing it.
In fact, this season, both teams have taken more points away from home than they have at home.
Not only is that a rare occurrence for clubs like United and City – whose homes are usually hallowed ground where outsiders fear to tread – but it’s an incredibly strange thing more generally. The only other club this season to have more points on the road than at home is Crystal Palace, whose recent wins over Liverpool and Chelsea have tipped their balance in terms of away points.
For United, part of the diagnosis seems obvious: Old Trafford has lost its aura. For two decades under Alex Ferguson, United were a juggernaut and home defeats were rare. So too were draws. But thanks to the years of decline under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, the return to the top isn’t quite as simple as bringing in a top manager and some top players: United are no longer as psychologically dominant as they used to be.
City have a similar problem. Although they were not at the top of the English game for decades, and the Etihad Stadium hasn’t always held fear for visiting teams, it’s worth remembering that Roberto Mancini’s side won the league in 2012 without losing a game at home. In fact, of their 19 home games, they won 18 of them; the perfect record was tarnished only by a 3-3 draw against Sunderland, when two late City goals sealed a crucial point. The Etihad was a fortress back then.
And yet these days it’s different for both teams.
Under Jose Mourinho, Chelsea built the same aura at Stamford Bridge by creating a defensive unit that appeared unbreakable. In Mourinho’s first season in charge, Chelsea went unbeaten at home and conceded just six goals.
But in 2004, Stamford Bridge didn’t hold the same fear that Old Trafford did. And Mourinho built a fortress on different foundations. Chelsea became known for keeping clean sheets at home, and their fans became used to seeing that. At Old Trafford, it wasn’t about United keeping clean sheets, it was that the opposition never did. And if Mourinho wants Old Trafford to be the same kind of impenetrable fortress that Chelsea’s home currently is, he can’t do it based upon a solid defence. He needs to do it based upon a strong attack.
And that’s because of the ground’s atmosphere. If they don’t see attacking football, United fans are faced with memories of Louis van Gaal’s turgid team – or indeed David Moyes’ flaccid team, who weren’t so much defensive as impotent. The pace on the counter-attack of Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial could go some way to helping Mourinho, though.
City have a similar problem here, too. The atmosphere at the Etihad has long been a problem, and whilst everyone is justifiably bored of the ‘Emptyhad’ insults, City face a deeper issue than how opposition fans perceive them: City fans need to look at how they perceive themselves.
Before 2008, City were a team of underdogs challenging the world, and especially the super-commercialised Manchester United, with their American Football owners. City were the antithesis to that, and going to watch them take on the bigger teams was to support the little guy. At times, against smaller clubs, it feels like the Etihad is filled with 50,000 City fans all wondering the same thing: ‘Are we the baddies?’
The root problem, though, is the football, not the fans, who are just reacting to what they see in front of them. And the derby proved it: two teams with opposite issues played out a game that showed they both have exactly the same problem. And it’s been like this all season.