Breathe in. Breathe out. And relax. We don’t have to go through that again for another six months. And to think some people actually enjoy derby day.
In a masterclass of selective internet perusal, I had mostly avoided the dreary over-hyped lead-up to the BIG GAME. Pep v Jose, Pogba blah blah blah, something about history, making a statement, whole world watching, handshakes, hashtags etc. etc. etc.
Derby games are always a big occasion of course, but this was merely another league game when stripped down, with seven months of the season to go. The losers, sadly, would not be unduly harmed by the loss.
But no putting it off, the day had arrived. Refresh, refresh, refresh at 11:30am on Twitter, and a game with few surprises. No hindsight from me but the expected debut of Bravo worried me, as did the amount of work Fernandinho might have in the centre, not that he’d care. Kolarov was a fine addition for me as his physicality would be needed, and Pep decided against a revolutionary striker-free formation to bamboozle us all with, simply replacing one striker with another.
I’ll be honest, I had no idea what to expect, but would have taken a draw beforehand, as always. The fear of losing a derby was as strong as ever.
I had little to worry about – bar an instant goal, the opening salvos reminded me of City’s 3-0 win at Old Trafford a couple of years back – on the front foot, dominating possession, and asking all the questions.
Were City brilliant or United bad? Both to be honest – United players were not doing their job, but City were not letting them near the ball and making them look like pub players. Rooney was getting frustrated and doing what he does best (it’s certainly not playing football anymore) – fouling and attempting to referee the whole match.
Whilst it remained goalless, City could have had a few goals – it wasn’t that they wasted clear cut chances as such, more that they effortlessly broke into very promising positions repeatedly but always seem to miss the final pass. When the goal did come, it was from an unlikely source. A measured long ball, Bailly stood still, Iheanacho did not and took one step forward, headed the ball on, De Bruyne reacted far quicker than Blind, strode through and calmly slotted the ball home. Easy as you like.
And resulting in my favourite blinkered comment of the post-match debates – a United fan (I presume) stating on Football365’s comments section that the goal should have been disallowed for a high foot.
After that, City continued to dominate. The second goal was weird to view, as we all waited for an offside flag, Iheanacho included. Yet again De Bruyne sparkled, Blind did not. De Bruyne’s season had burst into life at just the right moment.
The frustration was to come though. City were totally in control, and sailing towards three points. It was almost too easy. But one fumble from debutant Bravo and the face of the game changed. Stones can take some blame too for not getting out of the way if he got the shout, but Bravo should have punched if not in a comfortable position. Nice finish from the rather disinterested Ibrahimovic however.
For the rest of the half, City almost fell to pieces. Calamity defending, unsure goalkeeping and only a tame Ibrahimovic shot prevented United from the most undeserved leveller ever.
And as expected, there were half-time changes from United. Mourinho had got his line-up wrong, but it’s rather re-writing history to say he shouldn’t have started Mkhitaryan when many lauded him as the signing of the summer (and he is a great player). Lingard was more puzzling, but the type of worker player that has been picked a thousand games in such games. He certainly put in the yards, but rarely touched the ball, as City ran rings round him.
Herrera in the middle and Rashford on the left improved United immensely, and a United response was to be expected, as was the psychological impact of a break and the visitors somewhat retreating and diverting from their normal game. City had to weather a mini-storm and they did, Ibrahimovic firing over, and United not really creating any other clear cut chances. Our control of the ball had disappeared though, for now.
Guardiola was always going to react and thus on came Fernando, and the team shape improved as the other Fern moved forward and De Bruyne too as our nearest thing to a forward. The game was end to end, frantic, and nerve-wracking. United correctly had a goal disallowed and City really should have picked off United on the break but continued to be wasteful, the final pass lacking time after time. Sané came on and looked lively, and almost set up De Bruyne for the clincher but it struck the post and rolled agonisingly past the other post.
Of course the other talking point was regarding penalties. Bravo was nervy, and after miscontrolling a Cruyff turn, he and Rooney raced for the loose ball. Bravo got the ball, and all of the ball, of that there is no doubt. He did go in aggressively however, so I could understand if a referee had awarded a penalty, even though I’m not sure it was one. It certainly was not a red card – that’s the talk of sore losers, and there are none sorer than Jose Mourinho.
And who cares how far he is in the air beforehand? He can cartwheel his way towards Rooney whilst singing The Sound of Music, it matters not. It’s what happens when he reached the ball that matters, and he seems to kick the ball with the side of the foot not with his studs up. If it’s not clear even now, it can’t be a penalty.
Anyway, who cares? City should have had one when Bailly went through the back of Otamendi after a De Gea double save, and after De Bruyne shot against the post he was fouled then too. Add to that the fact that Wayne Rooney should have been sent off twice and seems immune to punishment (after he was eventually booked he told Clattenburg to fuck off, as he tends to do most weeks), and it is quite simple: the refereeing decisions did not heavily favour one side, and the game was not decided by the officials but by the team playing the better football.
So it’s just three points but what a tonic, and what a great feeling a derby win always provides. This was City’s first true test and Pep’s philosophy stood up to the task admirably. The team was wasteful many times and if United had found an equalizer history would judge that wastefulness differently, but the winners write history, and you know that this team will just get better and better – especially when you consider the players we haven’t utilised yet.
And a great game in general too, after the moribund displays of 2015/16.
Man of the match? De Bruyne is the obvious choice, but Otamendi was immense after worldwide jaunts during the international break, Silva and Fernandinho were their usual selves and the rest of the defence put up with the Pulis-style late aerial assault.
But we must talk about Bravo – a late spillage summed up his day, though we don’t know anything about his shot-stopping as he didn’t really have to stop anything, and he carried out the sweeper role just fine. As I’ve said, I did not feel that a derby is ever the right time to debut a goalkeeper, even one of such experience, and his communication with the defenders in front of him was clearly lacking. Obviously this does not mean that a guy that Barcelona were desperate to hold onto is rubbish, and City got away with it, so hopefully with time he will settle down. As soon as his name appeared on the team sheet, you kinda knew a mistake was brewing. Sometimes the headlines write themselves.
And no more Pep v Jose hype for a while now, thank god. Anyone still think Pep is a fraud, or that he would struggle to implement his style on the English game? Well it’s a bit early to be booking a parade bus, but the early signs, and six straight victories, bodes well.
And the baffling thing is how all the emphasis over the summer was how Pep would cope this season, yet the guy who almost dragged champions into a relegation fight is not questioned at all. Mourinho is a great manager and a great tactician, but his shtick can’t succeed forever, and it is acceptable to question whether his methods can still bring results. Probably, and £90m signings help, but we will see – I expect United to finish in the top two.
As for Pogba, the bitter blue in me will say one thing: if he had put in that performance for City, there would be a segment on MOTD analysing everything he did wrong. #amirite?
And as for MOTD, they delivered everything you’d expect – the first half dominance distilled into under two minutes, and no mention of our penalty claims or Bailly kicking out, Fellaini’s spit or why Kolarov is missing a tooth – no really controversial moments, but again, it’s about balance, rather than endless replays of an innocuous handball.
And so onto Tuesday, and perhaps a more important game than Saturday’s. More dominance of the ball, and hopefully more of a killer instinct would be great. It’s important to start with three points.