- Manchester United earns a valuable breath of fresh air after beating its city rival, but the red flags still remain for both Jose Mourinho's Red Devils and Pep Guardiola's Manchester City.
At the very least, the League Cup has brought some respite for Jose Mourinho.
This wasn’t Manchester United’s most fluent or most confident display, but it was a win and, after the slew of recent disappointments, any win will do, particularly one in a derby. The League Cup has always been good to Mourinho–he is yet to lose a game in the competition in 90 minutes in his entire career–and progress to the quarterfinals against West Ham will be doubly sweet, coming as it did against his archrival Pep Guardiola, who many would argue could use a respite himself.
That’s six games without a win now for City (0-3-3). Guardiola had said before the game that the League Cup is the least of his priorities, and his team selection reflected that, but that offers only so much mitigation. City was poor here, lacking much in the way of sharpness or invention and, after Kelechi Iheanacho had put a second-minute header over David de Gea’s goal, was barely threatening. Nicolas Otamendi had a miserable night, repeatedly lunging into challenges, and the danger is that the lack of confidence Guardiola identified as a problem before the trip to Barcelona, continues to spread.
This is not a crisis yet, but as wobbles go it has become troublingly protracted.
At the same time, a 1-0 win over a much-changed side, secured through Juan Mata’s 54th-minute goal, doesn’t suddenly mean all United’s problems are solved. It maintained its record of never having lost a home cup match against City, moved to within three wins of more silverware and, at least temporarily, turned back the wolves from the gate.
This has not been an easy few weeks for either side. City’s stutter, having won its 10 before that, had led to suggestions both that it had benefited from a relatively straightforward fixture list at the beginning of the season (true, although that run did include the 2-1 win in the league game at Old Trafford) and that Guardiola might be trying to change things too quickly (perhaps). But City at least could argue that it had been much the better side in the draw against Everton and even in the draw with Southampton when, despite a strange sense of flatness, it conceded only through a dreadful individual error from John Stones (albeit one possibly induced by a lack of passing options offered by his midfield).
For United there was no such solace. After grinding out a 0-0 draw away to Liverpool–a perfectly decent result, but achieved with a level of caution perhaps out of keeping with its summer spending–the 4-0 embarrassment at Chelsea was humbling enough for Mourinho to apologize to fans in his program notes.
It’s not just results and performances that have contributed to a mood of negativity. There have been odd stories this week about players unsettled by Mourinho’s supposed coldness on the training ground, while Mourinho has described his life living in a suite at the Lowry hotel as “a disaster." He looks at the moment like a manager under pressure, somebody who is not having fun.
That perhaps explained the team selections. Whereas United went in with what was near enough a full-strength side, Guardiola took the opportunity to rotate, fielding teenagers Pablo Maffeo and Aleix Garcia as well as fringe players such as Jesus Navas, Fernando and Willy Caballero.
Mourinho, without the injured Eric Bailly, deployed Marcos Rojo alongside Daley Blind in the center of the defense, with Michael Carrick alongside Ander Herrera at the back of midfield, behind Paul Pogba. Henrikh Mkhitaryan, apparently fully fit, was once again excluded from the matchday 18.
It was just Carrick’s fourth start of the season and, given the other three were in the Community Shield, the League Cup and the Europa League, it’s fair to say Mourinho does not see him as a first choice. His passing ability, though, gives United a verticality it has been lacking this season. His balls over the top occasionally threatened to catch City out in a game that was largely short on quality, full of tension and misplaced passes.
City had dominated the first 40 minutes of the league meeting between the sides, but there was no repeat here. United arguably just shaded a scrappy first half, but took control early in the second. Paul Pogba had just had a shot turned against the post by Caballero when Mata put United ahead, slamming in the loose ball after Herrera and Fernando had tangled in challenging for a Zlatan Ibrahimovic cross.
Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling were introduced after that but with little positive effect, as United defended its lead with a degree of comfort. Perhaps most disturbing for City was how unlike the City of the first month of the season it looked: the distinctive Guardiola way of playing was nowhere to be seen.
United will have concerns about the form of Ibrahimovic and Pogba, neither of whom had impressive nights, but for now, any win is welcome.