Sunday’s Manchester derby showed the vast differences between the contrasting styles of City and United. It also showed the current gulf in class that exists between the two. And it left Jose Mourinho’s side 11 points adrift of Pep Guardiola’s: the Red Devils need a monumental slip-up.
That collapse, according to plenty of pundits, will probably only happen as a result of injuries to key players. Many have said that the only way they can see City dropping their 11-point lead is if the likes of David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne succumb to unfortunate long-term injuries. Paul Pogba put it more bluntly: he actively wishes suffering on them.
That might well be true: it might take a full-blown injury crisis to see City drop the points needed for a real title race to break out. To say that isn’t to wish it – unless you’re Paul Pogba – but it certainly is to misunderstand the context of the season so far.
We shouldn’t forget that when Manchester United lost Paul Pogba to injury in a Champions League game in September, they were top of the league and ahead of City by virtue of two extra marks in their goals scored column. By the time the Frenchman returned, the Red Devils were already eight points behind. After losing him again to suspension, they’ve fallen a further three back, and he’ll still be out for the next two games.
It would be impossible to forget that fact. It remains a mitigating factor for United’s slumps this season, even if that does smack more of an excuse than anything else. Still, £90m-worth of footballing talent would be a loss to most if not any side.
But it does seem as though everyone’s forgotten about City’s injury problems: which have also played a big part in the season so far.
When people talk about City injuries as the main way that Pep Guardiola’s side will implode later in the campaign, the implication must be that they haven’t had to cope with their fair share already. But the fact is, they have. And more than United, too.
This season, City have had to do without their only recognised left-back for most of the campaign: an injury to start the season saw Benjamin Mendy make his debut in the third Premier League game of the season, and a serious knee-injury suffered when he was just getting into his stride means he’s only played four times in the league.
Since then, City have made do without Mendy, fashioning a functioning left-back out of Fabian Delph’s footballing ability and Pep Guardiola’s coaching prowess.
They’ve also lost John Stones, their main centre-back, to a hamstring injury which co-incided with – and it might not be a stretch to say forced – their ‘slump’ over the past few weeks. The downturn in form has seen the side have to dig out results. Impressively – and frankly, frighteningly – they did.
They are two injuries which have hit City’s form and their style of play hard. They are two major players who are automatic starters in the defence – the one part of this Guardiola side which has come in for criticism this season. But surely that criticism should be tempered by an acceptance that, just as United miss Pogba, City miss Stones and Mendy. And that’s even before you factor in captain Vincent Kompany’s absences, too.
That’s not the only area in which City have suffered. Up front, is it really to be forgotten that the club’s all-time top goalscorer Sergio Aguero missed games because he was injured in a car crash? Or, indeed, that he hasn’t quite looked the same player since then, and is yet to come back to form?
It’s true that Manchester United have suffered from losing Paul Pogba to injury and suspension at crucial times. It’s equally true that City have suffered to at least a similar extent with injuries, too.
But when those injuries started, for both teams, the table showed both sides level on points and neck-and-neck on goal difference. A Manchester title shoot-out looked deliciously likely. Since then, though, the difference between the two sides has been exposed and it hasn’t just been a gulf in quality or a gap in styles of play. It’s also been the ability of both sides to cope with the injuries they’ve suffered.
United have done it terribly, and have therefore resorted to excuses. City have done it well, and maybe that’s why it’s all been forgotten.