For two of the world’s most glamorous football clubs, it was a pretty beige affair on Wednesday night. Tedium prevailed where superstars and egotistical managers could not, with the bellowing Old Trafford crowd the only thing that reminded us it was a derby during the first half.
Nine changes for Manchester City meant a change in their standards was inevitable. Worryingly for Manchester United, their first half performance was not something out of the ordinary, an uninspiring, sluggish display from a team as close to their best XI as is currently possible.
The first half reflected the current state of the two teams. Manchester United’s defensive fragility occasionally appeared, while Manchester City’s talented second string stumbled through the half to record the most meaningful chances. Ultimately, the first 45 will not get people craving English football.
The game lit up at the beginning of the second half. Within a couple of minutes a Paul Pogba shot produced a superhuman save from Willy and the crowd was roaring like the days of Alex Ferguson. Soon came a Manchester United goal, as Manchester City bodies seemed to collapse to the ground. Juan Mata took an easy chance with the technical grace that we expect from him and that was that. Sergio Aguero appeared, Raheem Sterling scurried about, but the Red Devils preserved their lead. Mourinho’s specialist subject is 1-0 victories and he got full marks on this potentially challenging assignment. Full marks for Mourinho killed the game, he hung-drew-and-quartered the game. Once the lead was taken, the second half return to the drowsy affair of the first 45.
So now what? Well, this performance hardly earns Manchester United the greatest amount of credit. The result will give a little momentum, however. Manchester City’s boss has now gone six games without a win for the first time in his managerial career and he faces the intimidating prospect of Barcelona again next week. These respective performances and the eventual tight, expected result has limited consequences. This outcome was always going to produce the smallest reverberations, and that is exactly what has happened.
Luke Shaw’s troubled performance at left-back is perhaps the most significant story of the game. Run ragged by Jesus Navas, Shaw looked short of acceleration and justified Mourinho’s recent favouring of Daley Blind. An improved defensive display from Manchester United allows them to forget the aberration against Chelsea as nothing more than a blip. Michael Carrick’s calming influence unquestionably helped Mourinho’s side throughout and the point may finally have been reached where Carrick starts in the Premier League this weekend.
Manchester City discovered little about themselves throughout their night’s work. Pep Guardiola was able to give Vincent Kompany some vital game time and keep many of his squad players match fit. That was the long and short of it, really. Defensively they were okay, in possession they missed the creative brilliance of Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva – as you would expect – and in the final third Kelechi Iheanacho showed the sort of weaknesses you can excuse for a young, gifted player.
This game had the potential to really harm both teams and managers. Instead, the expected excitement lacking, 1-0 to Manchester United was almost the best possible outcome. Guardiola may have taken this result before the game, avoiding injuries, suspensions and not having the additional fixture list clutter of a quarter final and Jose Mourinho secured a much-needed win. No collateral damage and a lot of football fans who lost 2 or so hours of their Wednesday nights, we can expect the next Manchester derby to have vastly greater implications and interest.