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It was the most expensively assembled game of football in history and the Manchester derby did not disappoint the neutrals. In terms of spectacle, the show justified the hype which reportedly attracted a record global viewing figure for the Premier League.
So it didn’t matter on this occasion that the game wasn’t exactly littered with the trademark high standard guarantee that often comes with Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho on the touchline.
Of course, the genuine quality in the game probably came from the visitors, as Manchester City put on a flowing first half display to expose the weaknesses in Manchester United’s side. Guardiola’s passing game was on show, as was the speed of their movement and the distance covered by his players as represented by the post-game statistics.
City look as formidable a force as they should have done last season; the £400m investment to improve their last title winning team was finally represented by the beginnings of a level they have longed to achieve. They were too fast and too aggressive for United in the opening stages on Saturday, which was probably a little ironic as for once Jose Mourinho openly stated a game plan and got his personnel totally wrong.
The logic was clear and not too unreasonable. Marcus Rashford was the big player to miss out, but Jesse Lingard and Henrikh Mkhitryan were ostensibly smart choices as inverted wingers who have the tendency to come inside. Unfortunately the theory didn’t work out in practice as off the ball neither demonstrated the kind of pressing game that would justify their inclusion and on the ball both failed to make any impact.
It was clear early on that these two players needed to be replaced, it was less clear how United could get into a game they were two goals behind against a team whose energy levels were clearly superior. They then benefited from Claudio Bravo’s error and sought thereon to unsettle the debutant; an approach that feasibly worked, considering the goalkeeper’s reckless lunge on Wayne Rooney in the second half; an act which went unpunished by Mark Clattenburg.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic should have added to his first half goal and Rashford, when introduced, was excellent; United forced the issue and for the first fifteen minutes of the second half it looked as if they would equalise.
However, City rallied, and by the end were more or less comfortable winners. Guardiola appears to be almost completely at ease with his team, whereas Mourinho is still working out the finer points. Eric Bailly and Daley Blind made errors for both goals which were uncharacteristic - critics will say those errors came in their first real test. They both appeared to be the result of the lack of communication that is perhaps understandable in the first few weeks of a fledgling partnership; it’s not every week they will come up against a £40m per player front line, though next time they do, expectations will be on improvement.
Mourinho’s admission of where he got it wrong was at least tempered by the fact he didn’t do what he’s done in the past, with multiple first half substitutions. It was the kind of mistake that he doesn’t make once he knows and trusts his squad. Perhaps there was a sign of cautiousness in there which translated into a lack of confidence; an unintentional inferiority complex which left United frozen at the start against a City team that have looked good but were also coming up against their own biggest test.
The biggest decision the United manager needs to make is in the Wayne Rooney-Paul Pogba axis. Against Southampton it worked reasonably well and against Hull City it more or less just paid off but it’s obvious that against top drawer opposition, it may be impossible to play both in areas where you are achieving maximum benefit to the team. In that circumstance you pick the better player. Sure, Lingard and Mkhitryan looked off the pace, but this was not helped by the lack of cohesion further back, the critical engine room.
United’s next ‘big’ game comes in the middle of October at Anfield and there are six games before then. That’s a long time in football and should provide us with the time to get the answers; maybe they will come in that Liverpool/Manchester United head to head. Mourinho will hope that his team are not playing catch up for too long, as Guardiola’s City team have already hit the ground running.
Follow Wayne Barton on Twitter @Yolkie_
Wayne Barton has been the football columnist for international broadcaster Setanta Sports since 2011 and has been described by the Independent as ‘the leading writer on Manchester United on the period between Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson’ after numerous books on the club and autobiographies. The most recent are ‘74/75’ with Tommy Docherty and ‘Rise Of The Underdog’, the autobiography of Danny Higginbotham.
Wayne has also worked in Hollywood and across the USA with Gold and Platinum selling musicians and actors from the monster hit TV show ‘Breaking Bad’.