Sunday's derby did not give us a complete, dominant Man City performance over Man United throughout 90 minutes, but in key moments, Pep Guardiola's side gave us breathtaking passages that showed its undoubted superiority over its rival.
MANCHESTER, England – In the end, the most surprising aspect of the Manchester derby was that it was only settled with four minutes remaining. City had been almost absurdly dominant in spells but it was only when Ilkay Gundogan made it 3-1 after 86 minutes that it became absolutely clear that it would take the three points it so richly deserved.
It remains unbeaten 12 games into the season, two points clear of Liverpool at the top of the table and, just as significantly, 12 points clear of United.
This was another exceptional performance from the champion. Perhaps it did not quite maintain the same level throughout, and the failure to finish United off earlier meant it endured a needlessly anxious half hour in the second half, but there were passages of play that were breathtaking. In this form, very few sides in the world can live with it, and United certainly didn’t. It may be even better than last season.
And what of United? All those positive signs of late, all those come from behind victories – were they just papering over the cracks, a side scrapping desperately to overcome its significant structural defects? The answer, probably is yes. This was the sixth game of the last seven in which United has conceded the first goal. That is not sustainable. United here looked distinctly second-best. The absence of the injured Paul Pogba didn’t help, but the gulf was far more than just him.
“I consider the performance of my team a performance with mistakes, not a poor performance,” Jose Mourinho said afterwards. But the stats seemed clear enough: City 66% possession and 16 shots to United’s five. “The way people who don’t understand football analyze it with stats,” Mourinho said. “I don’t go for stats. I go for what I felt in the game and it was there until minute 80-something.”
And yet that it was open for so long was largely mystifying. The start was extraordinary. City kicked off, and passed the ball, and passed the ball, and passed the ball some more. By the time Bernardo Silva sent a shot scudding just wide after the 75th second, no United played had touched the ball. It wasn’t until the 117th second that a United outfielder managed a touch - a dropping ball glancing off Marouane Fellaini’s immense chest. In those opening stages City was unstoppable, irresistible. It had 91% of the ball and as United staggered, dazed by the onslaught, a goal felt inevitable. It came in the twelfth minute, David Silva tucking in after Sergio Aguero had been prevented from reaching Bernardo Silva’s ball across goal by a Chris Smalling foul.
At that point, City had completed 96 passes, United five. It felt as though a shellacking was imminent and yet for the remainder of the half the game fell into an odd shapelessness. There were flurries of City passing, and the occasional United break. This was the pattern of all four previous Manchester derbies between the respective managers in the league: a promising start from City that threatened humiliation, followed by a United fightback.
Three minutes into the second half came a City second, a demonstration both of City’s class and United’s defensive vulnerability. A De Gea goal kick flew low and awkwardly flat to Lingard who miscontrolled and was dispossessed. Aguero suddenly had the space he had been denied until then and played a rapid one-two with Riyad Mahrez, surging by the lumbering Victor Lindelof and lashing a finish into the roof of the net.
The memory of this fixture last season, when United came from 2-0 down to win 3-2 – the first instance perhaps, of this trait under Mourinho of playing better after it had gone behind – felt very present and relevant at that stage, and became even more so. Romelu Lukaku had just come off the bench when he ran onto Anthony Martial’s through-ball and was tripped by Ederson, charging needlessly from his goal. Martial knocked in the penalty, which was United’s first shot on target.
City suffered a couple of edgy moments, but only a couple. By the end, it was almost taunting United such was its domination of the ball. Gundogan’s goal came after a move of 44 passes and so left the sense that, ultimately, City had been holding United at arm’s length throughout.