Reaction as Manchester United win at the Etihad.
Whew, what a week.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has come under criticism for his tactical approach, with many of those most vociferous suggesting he is too naive to manage games successfully at the top level.
The other side of that coin is that Solskjaer has, by and large, done very well in big games. You could interchange naivety for bravery; certainly in the early stages of the first half, when the two teams were going hell for leather, it seemed those qualities were in equal measure.
Daniel James and Jesse Lingard spurned decent early chances; the game was in its infancy, but it was already starting to feel as if United couldn’t afford to be so profligate, considering their gameplay seemed so centred around penetration and clinical incision rather than composure and possession.
But City have been more porous than usual of late and offered up another chance, this time to Anthony Martial; he too stung the fingertips of Ederson, but once more it was comfortable for the home keeper.
At the halfway stage of the first half United were awarded a penalty. It was a clear foul; the only question mark was how the referee Taylor didn’t give it first time. Rashford despatched with confidence — and then contrived to miss two chances in the next four minutes which were arguably easier than the ones his teammates had enjoyed. His effort which hit the crossbar should have been the fourth goal for his team.
A second came soon after, to ease concerns of those missed chances. Martial exchanged passes with James and finished stylishly; it was just reward for a thrilling performance from the Frenchman, which just begs the question, why don’t we see it more often?
United then went into their shells for the remainder of the first half as City turned on the pressure — we have seen this from Ole’s United in terms of faltering after early promise, and so it became a matter of quality and concentration. They saw it through to half-time, surviving a scare moments before the break when Fred handled a Kyle Walker cross. Pep Guardiola was his usual apoplectic self when an earlier spot kick wasn’t awarded for his team; if Victor Lindelof had been punished, it would have been unfortunate, but United certainly rode their luck with the second call.
The second half involved a predictable pattern but United remained dangerous on the break; Jesse Lingard had a couple of openings; the first he might have wished would have come to him just a little earlier, the second just a little too far for him to connect with properly.
Otamendi powered in a header with five minutes to go, exposing United’s lack of true authority in defence, although they had been well organised. United fans have been waiting for one true imposing performance from Maguire but he was dominated when it mattered. There has been a general level of improvement when it comes to eradication of individual errors but so many of the goals conceded of late have been sloppy, and not those of a team who have a strong backline.
Could organisation win out over a lack of composure? Yes; just. There was more than an element of fortune of it, United rode their luck by sitting on two goals, but just about deserved the win for the devastating nature of that opening period; a thrilling victory and statement from the under-fire manager.
This is a victory to be cherished for the true supporters; maybe not one that suggests you can play like this going forward, but a victory for spirit, and one that suggests that there is something worth investing patience in.
It’s no coincidence that United’s better flow has come back with Scott McTominay’s return to the team. This could mean a number of things — it highlights just how desperate things were in the middle of the park for United and how profoundly it impacted on the recent form. It also indicates that McTominay is much more of an important influence than anyone had acknowledged, even accounting for the praise he has received for his progression this year. McTominay’s stock has risen considerably over the last five games, and he didn’t play in three of them.
Fred continued to impress with his best run of form since he signed for the club. Whilst it’s still premature to say Paul Pogba doesn’t get back into the team if and when he’s fit again, it’s fair to ask where he comes in so as not to be counter-productive to the positive things we’ve seen in his absence.
The midfield is an abyss, but, such has been Pogba’s inconsistency since returning to the club in 2016 that it’s probably fair to say he could easily have flattered to deceive in the sort of games United have struggled in in his absence. Would he have played in the Lingard role today? Would he have been as effective if he did?
Frustratingly, after Victor Lindelof had done so much good to enhance his own reputation with a calm display against Spurs, today he was erratic and nervous, inviting and encouraging pressure and presenting openings. He wasn’t dreadful, but that sort of anxiety only fuels further nerves through the defence. It was, perhaps, that sort of nervousness that started to become a feature of Wan-Bissaka’s play at the side of him.
When looking at where United can improve to get that improved composure in their side to help them move to the next level, Lindelof looks a vulnerable target.
Can’t buy class
Pep Guardiola is like Teflon; two years ago, Jose Mourinho was (rightly?) lambasted for being too far behind a free-spending City. City are miles behind a, frankly, much-better coached Liverpool team, and Guardiola’s reputation remains intact.
Like Harry Enfield’s famous sitcom characters winning the lottery, you just can’t buy class and dignity. City fans have made a mockery of being the best team in the land, in their history even, with their meagre support. And those who did turn up today showed that they can’t handle failure, with the disgraceful episode of items being thrown at Fred probably more to do with their capitulation over the season rather than in this particular game.
History dictates such a lack of class probably won’t be remembered when it comes to looking back, so I urge most reds of sound mind to keep their own long memory.