The 172nd Manchester had delivered an off-pitch narrative more captivating than it had ever delivered before. This clash had its own anthology of sub-plots; the rivalry between José Mourinho and Pep Guardiola whose feud was presented to be more combustible than Batman vs the Joker, the most expensive player in the Premier League and world football Paul Pogba vs the second most expensive player in the Premier League Kevin De Bruyne, Zlatan vs the bloke who so unjustly, according to the Swede, shifted him to the left to accommodate the best player in the world, Adidas vs Nike, London vs Stockport. All angles were covered. All potential outcomes assessed. Children and grown adults were falling asleep on Friday night dreaming of a 4-4 thriller in which every goal would be scored from 65 yards, the two managers erupting into a full-scale brawl at the final whistle.
Games like this are so often built up to fall. The Hollywood blockbuster we’re after actually turns out to be a chess match in which both sides shuffle hesitantly, sniffing, feeling, waiting to strike. Thankfully, this derby, that kept a vice-like grip on its audience throughout the 90 minutes, delivered on the pitch too.
After a first half in which our supporters may have been forgiven for sliding out the sunloungers, slipping on the shades and ordering themselves a Caipirinha, the second had us rocking back and forth like a teen who had just seen his Mother stepping out of the shower. There wasn’t a moment where one of the two teams weren’t bursting towards their opponent’s back line or creating a chance. It was a powerful, gripping, exhilarating encounter between the two favourites for the title.
The first 40 minutes, however, had everyone convinced there was only one team ready to claim the league crown this term. In this period City were utterly dominant with Kevin De Bruyne pulling the strings like Mangiafuoco in both halves of the pitch. In a side missing an out-and-out forward – the suspended Sergio Agüero was replaced by Kelechi Iheanacho in this game – De Bruyne orchestrated City’s football in the final third and was successful with 20 of his 26 attempted passes in this area. The Belgian’s powers at the top of the pitch have never been disputed, his direct approach and ability to shoot from distance with either foot makes him a nightmare for defenders, but Guardiola has quite obviously spent time with the 25-year-old working on the defensive side of his game. For all of his brilliance going forward, it was De Bruyne’s work rate off the ball that ensured his side would enjoy so much control in this first half as he recovered the ball a total of 7 times.
Eric Bailly and Daley Blind seemed to have formed a solid partnership in the centre of United’s defence but there was always the fear that they had not yet been thoroughly tested. Bailly was able to muscle Iheanacho off the ball as he ran onto a cutting pass from De Bruyne, but this was an early sign that the pair were in for a difficult afternoon against an outfit more equipped than Bournemouth or Hull City to punish mistakes. And then, on the 15-minute mark, the best player on the pitch pounced. Aleksandar Kolarov’s hopeful punt required an excellent touch from Iheanacho to set De Bruyne on his way, but it was the former Wolfsburg man’s hunger that allowed him to take the ball off Blind’s foot and slot calmly past David De Gea. “He’s better than Agüero, that lad,” mumbled my 83-year-old United supporting Grandfather as he watched the ball hit the back of the net, and I nodded my head in concurrence.
United’s approach was all about physicality, but the closest the home side got to muscling out their opponents was when Wayne Rooney found himself in a touchline spat with Guardiola. This was one pre-match sub-plot the press failed to cover; the battle of the baldies. Henrikh Mhiktaryan was handed his first league start of the campaign alongside Pogba and Fellaini in midfield, a trio with an average height of 6ft 1 inch, but they resembled elephants dancing around to avoid mice as Nolito, Sterling, Silva, De Bruyne and Iheanacho ran circles around them.
In the Premier League though where games can change so quickly, we were going to have to take our chances and make the most of our authority in this tie. It appeared we had when De Bruyne’s effort trickled against the post and fell at Iheanacho’s feet, but even at 2-0, there was calamity round the corner. Goalscorer Kelechi found himself munching on the breath of a furious Guardiola when he gave the ball away inside his own half, but Silva’s challenge on Rooney in the aftermath was ridiculous and completely unnecessary. Here, Claudio Bravo would be given his first taste of the physicality of English football as a deep ball soared into his penalty area and he dealt with it horrifically, coming for a ball that never needed to be caught, missing it and allowing Zlatan Ibrahimović to volley into the open net. This was not a scoreline that represented how in control City had been, and suddenly the side had problems.
Marcus Rashford and Ander Herrera were introduced after the break to replace Jesse Lingard and Mhiktaryan. Mourinho wanted more control and more going forward, but really he should have sacrificed his captain Rooney who has become nothing more than a petulant moaner who spends more time talking to the referee than his teammates. Even as a City fan, watching this angry little man constantly give the ball away was incredibly annoying. The hosts now had the momentum and Guardiola was forced into bringing Fernando on for Iheanacho. The move helped to calm things down and City played the rest of the game on the counter attack.
As United searched for an equaliser, the space in front of Mourinho’s back line expanded and City were invited to kill the game off. Nolito tried first, then De Bruyne smashed against the post, but ultimately we were guilty of pissing around too much when we could have put the game to bed three or four times. New boy Leroy Sané was given 20 minutes to contribute to the cause, but he, like Sterling who was substituted mid-way through the second half, showed a strange reluctance to take on his man. Nevertheless, his desire to get on the ball was encouraging.
At the other end of the pitch Claudio Bravo was busy taking f****** around to extreme levels. There’s making an effort to pass the ball out from the back and then there’s actively waiting for your opponent to close you down so you can make a bit of a tit of yourself and then almost give away a penalty and get yourself sent off. It made for terrifying viewing, like watching a family member walk a 500m high tight-rope with no safety net, and I found myself tightening up every time the ball went near him. I have every faith in the keeper and suspect he’ll play a lot better than this in the future, but this was an unconvincing first performance from the 33-year-old.
Guardiola was impressed, though, which I suppose is the main thing. “We played good in the first half because of Claudio,” he told reporters.
“I like the keepers to attack the ball and after what happened with the goal, the second half he continued to play and that’s a good thing about his personality.”
And City certainly showed a lot of personality at Old Trafford on Saturday afternoon, a ground not many teams will come away from with three points this season. In front of Bravo, Stones and Otamendi in particular were impenetrable, the latter winning 100% of his tackles, making 8 clearances and 6 interceptions. It was a titanic display from the Argentine who appeared so uncertain at times in his first season at the club. He and De Bruyne were the standout performers in this showdown that proved, at present, the difference in class between the two clubs is quite monumental.
With Ilkay Gündogan, Vincent Kompany and Agüero to throw into the mix, City look perfectly assembled to go and win silverware.