A mere half hour into the Manchester Derby, I found my mind cast back to United’s most recent Champions League final. Just as they did this weekend, they took on a side coached by Pep Guardiola. Much like his Barcelona on that fateful Saturday, Pep’s Manchester City were outclassing us.
It hurt. It was frustrating. The hope and cautious optimism created by United’s 100% start was torturously eroding.
Kevin De Bruyne ran United ragged throughout the first half, partly through his own skill and industry, partly because nobody from Man United saw fit to mark him.
He had already swept City ahead via a nice finish after statuesque defending by Bailly and Blind.
De Bruyne was involved again, as his cross-shot ricocheted off the post to the feet of Inheanacho, who knocked in for the ultimate winner.
Had autoreplay been available, it could have been used to show the protesting United defence that no, he wasn’t offside. If they’d only looked down the line, they might have known to challenge for the ball, instead of standing there, arms aloft, like a set of plebs.
As City tortured United like a sadistic child plucking legs off a bug, my inner frustration progressed to outward profanity.
What the hell were we doing?
Then out of nowhere, the vengeful spirit of Joe Hart came to our aid, possessing new Bitters ‘keeper Claudio Bravo, causing him to flimsily slap at a cross, wafting it nicely for a waiting Zlatan Ibrahimovic to volley home.
A fortunate, ill-deserve lifeline.
Shortly after, Bravo almost undid his team’s good work in the first half entirely by spilling the ball once more to Ibra. This time however, he rushed his shot, electing to take a weak nudge toward the vacant net, that was easily intercepted by the panicked defence.
What happened next was encouraging.
As halftime ended, Marcus Rashford and Ander Herrera replaced a Jesse Lingard and Henrikh Mkhitaryan that were the worst of a frankly dire bunch.
Had this next 45 minutes been representative of the whole game, then regardless of result, I’d have been perfectly satisfied.
We hustled, pressed and made chances. Rashford did his usual act of defying his young age with poise and movement. He almost immediately assisted Ibra, who under pressure from a defender, skied the ball from 6 yards.
Herrera made the defence look less sieve-like. Rooney’s penchant for being everywhere was actually helping matters. Fellaini, for all his limitations, was proving an effective outlet for long balls. Valencia had his best game for United in some time.
There were a few penalty shouts – two for United, one for City – the strongest coming from Bravo going in studs-up on a 50/50 ball with Rooney.
City for their part were resolute in defence, threatening on the counter-attack.
No further goals were scored. City truly deserved the points for their devastating display in the first half.
Despite this, I’m not as down on the result as I would ordinarily be.
The reason was entirely the response in the second half. I have no doubt that under Louis Van Gaal or David Moyes, such a response would not have occurred. Even when Fergie’s United teams were torn apart by Barca in successive Champions League finals, there was no real answer.
Of course, the Barcelona of Xavi, Iniesta, Messi and Puyol were an even tougher prospect than this City team. The latter are not without vulnerabilities and there were a number of opportunities to snatch a second goal and perhaps even a point.
What started out as a pummeling, finally evolved into a fascinating piece of tactical sparring, with both managers responding to events with changes of strategy. Had the match ended on 45 minutes, I’d have been gutted; disillusioned by a sound dismantling.
Instead I’m encouraged. Jose Mourinho after all, is still learning about his team. I’d also hasten to add that the Man United he inherited from Van Gaal was in worse shape than the one that landed in Josep Guardiola’s lap.
At the same time, it can’t be glossed over how badly Mourinho set out his starting lineup. A four man midfield consisting of an injured debutante, the introduction of Lingard and the decidedly non-cohesive partnership of Pogba and Fellaini.
I won’t give Mou a pass for the result, though he did a better job than most would in redeeming that atrocious half. The important thing is that he’s hopefully learned some stern lessons about the road ahead.