By midway through the second half, both sides in the Manchester derby were walking in possession. Was it exhaustion? Was it a lack of ambition? Was it pragmatism in a season of slog that still hasn’t quite shaken out? Perhaps it was a little of all three, but the result was a dirge of a football match in which almost nothing happened.
Both clubs, perhaps, were happy with the point. Manchester United goes four points behind the leader Tottenham, and steadies the ship after the midweek exit from the Champions League. Manchester City is a point further back and so can consider that it remains in the race after a theoretically testing away game, a fixture it lost last season. But it is in the title race largely because nobody is doing much more than jogging at the moment. City has now dropped 14 points in 11 games this season, which is to say as many as it dropped in the entirety of 2017-18.
Perhaps the issue is that this season, with the curtailed preseason and the relentless nature of the calendar is just not like any other, and the usual rules simply don’t apply. Pep Guardiola, certainly, seemed happy enough with the way the game went: He replaced Riyad Mahrez with Ferran Torres after 66 minutes but made no other substitution despite having Phil Foden and Bernardo Silva on the bench. The desire not to be counter-attacked upon, as it was in both games last year, seemed to outweigh all else.
The trend this season has been for games between the biggest sides to resemble the big games of a decade or so ago, when they were tense drab affairs between teams more concerned with not losing than with winning. And perhaps that makes sense; if the points needed to win the title is more likely to be in the mid-80s than the high-90s, then. Draws no longer feel like defeats.
That United would sit off, not overcommit and look to hit City on the break was no great surprise. That is how Solskjaer almost always sets his side up in big games, and how United won both Manchester derbies in the league last season. In both of those games Solskjaer had deployed a back three; that he didn’t here was perhaps a result of how United’s back three was exposed by RB Leipzig on Tuesday. The bigger surprise was how sluggish City was. In the first half hour, it just didn’t look like a Guardiola side. There was no pace on the ball, no imagination of movement, little aggression in the press, while Ederson struggled badly with his kicking.
It was all very mannered and slow, and relatively easy for United to shut down. It wasn’t terrible from City, but nor was it anything like City at its intimidating best. Passing accuracy in the first half was down to 84% against a season average of 88%. But that was only part of it. This is a City side that feels as though it’s losing its aura.
There was one chance, created by a brilliant first-time pass from Kevin De Bruyne after 35 minutes, only for Mahrez’s shot to be blocked. But there was very little else going in. Both sides were ponderous and predictable with the threat offered by United restricted almost entirely to set plays.
City had kept five clean sheets in a row before this game, a spell that has coincided with the unexpected return of John Stones to the side. He was selected again ahead of Aymeric Laporte and played perfectly well; the danger rather, as so often, was Kyle Walker, who continues to be a superb defender who has an unfortunate habit of making rash challenges in the box. It was his clumsy foul on Sadio Mane that gifted Liverpool a penalty against City, and he was at it again here, kicking Marcus Rashford on the toe on the box nine minutes into the second half; the penalty was initially given before VAR showed Rashford had been offside.
That hinted that the second half may be brighter than the first, but the promise never developed. Each side mustered a solitary shot on target. Neither side seemed particularly excited by the prospect of improving on that. It was all, frankly, a non-event.