Whatever people hoped that Thursday’s Manchester Derby would be, it is safe to say that it will not have met the expectations of many. United went into the game on a relative high, twenty-three games unbeaten in the Premier League and in decent form. The injury to Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the impacts of Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial in his absence have led to excitement and anticipation levels rising in the red 9/10 of the city, whilst in Stockport Guardiola’s relative career dominance over Mourinho and an attack containing far more raw talent led them to believe that City’s top four jitters could be put to bed. Alas, the reality proved to be far different, as a defensive United and tentative City served up a bore-fest that did little to help either side. The Portuguese will be the happier of the two manager this morning, his team clinging on to the four sides above them, but more will be required from visits to Tottenham and Arsenal in the coming weeks if Champions League qualification through Premier League position is to be achieved.
Mourinho will hope that he has Paul Pogba back to full fitness by then. His decision to leave the Frenchman on at Burnley as United cruised to victory was proven to be folly as the player hobbled off late in the game. Pogba has been the source of a great deal of criticism this season, much of it born out of partisanship or ignorance. He is the anti-Kante, receiving little praise for anything he does that doesn’t involve assisting or scoring a goal. It is those two figures that are the only measures by which expensive signings can be judged, apparently. Meanwhile, at Stamford Bridge, Kante is offered praise merely for stepping on the pitch and his mistakes, such as that which led to Ander Herrera scoring the second goal for United in their win over Chelsea at Old Trafford, barely warrant a mention. Both are fine players, vitally important to their sides, but perceptions, it would appear, are more important than deeds.
Pogba has not reached his enormous potential this season but in the previous two games, at home to Anderlecht and away at Burnley, played vital roles in the scoring of three of United’s four goals. Against the Belgians it was his outstanding pass which set Rashford away on the left, from where the teenager completed the much easier job of passing inside for Mkhitaryan to fire home. At Turf Moor Pogba started the counter attack which led to Anthony Martial’s opening goal and it was his pirouette and through-ball which played in Martial for the blocked shot which Rooney followed up to score. In the record books it will show that in those two games Pogba is credited with no goals and no assists, and yet the former Juventus player was essential in a creative sense and in transitioning the ball from defence to attack. He has been for much of the season. It is not by accident that he finds himself as the Premier League’s best central midfield player and third best player overall in the @whoscored performance rankings.
At The Etihad United’s approach made some sense. Without the ball they dropped deep, did not press until play was in their own half, defended compactly and, when possession was won, looked to spring clear using the pace of Martial and Rashford. The latter, playing off the shoulder of City’s centre backs, who had curiously been instructed to play a high line, looked lively in the first half and it was clear that he would trouble the home side if given the right service. If there is one individual at the club who can provide that service it is Pogba. Alas, he was sat at home, presumably watching the game on television. Mid-way through the first half United won the ball in midfield and Marouane Fellaini drove forward. Rashford made his run, perfectly timed, and with the right pass he would have been in on goal. The Belgian spotted the run and attempted the through-ball, straight to the feet of Kompany and the danger for the home side passed.
United’s ball retention was poor in the first half and after the break it collapsed entirely. Carrick, Herrera and Fellaini spent much of the match chasing back, as City bypassed or dribbled past the midfield and found themselves in pockets of space in front of the visitor’s back four. There was no out ball, no relief, not even a partial threat at the other end of the pitch. Slow, tired legs were unable to press City in possession and make use of the ball when attacks broke down. The transition work and positive, high-quality passing which Pogba can offer was missing and without it United were simply unable to function as an attacking unit. Carrick looked his age (and has never been particularly agile anyway), whilst Fellaini showed effort and endeavour, as he always does, but is simply not accomplished enough on the ball to even partially make up for Pogba’s absence. Neither man have pace or can dribble past and commit players in the way that the Frenchman can. In short, those questioning his worth need only have watched this match. It is no surprise that Mourinho has targeted another midfielder this summer, a player with dynamism, an athlete.
At City, United clung on. Fellaini was sent off for stupidly pushing his head into Aguero’s face. The Argentine exaggerated the contact and a yellow card may have been more appropriate, but whatever the colour of the card the Belgian would have been sent off. It was an act of stupidity, one which will rule him out of three vital games in the run-in, and left his teammates to defend for the final ten minutes of action with only ten men. To their credit they did just that. Mourinho has made this team devilishly hard to break down and beat. Eric Bailly, his first signing, has proven himself to be a player and athlete of immense talent and promise, an effortless, velvet defender. A joy to watch, the Ivorian can do the dirtiest of work in the most beautiful way possible. The manager has elevated Marcos Rojo to new levels of performance this season and has managed to bring some modicum of defensive consistency to a back line which has changed wildly throughout the season. Part One of his two-part mission to restore United to the elite of English and European football is already on its way to being complete.
Part Two is, of course, to make United a fluent and deadly attacking force. Goalscoring this season has been an enormous disappointment. This task will be, in theory, achieved in part by simply buying better players. There is a suspicion that Zlatan’s injury may ultimately prove to be a good thing for the team, with the pace and movement giving it a different dimension in his absence. But forward players need to receive the ball in areas in which they can do damage. That simply didn’t happen at The Etihad last night, and whilst Ander Herrera had perhaps the game’s best chance, heading wide from a free kick, United lacked creativity and struggled to transition the ball from defence to Rashford, Martial and the anonymous Henrikh Mkhitaryan. It was a game which highlighted the importance to this team of Paul Pogba. We cannot know for sure whether or not he would have performed well (he has struggled a little in big games this season), but what is certain is that the match last night and Mourinho’s tactics were tailor-made for the twenty-four year old. Neither Michael Carrick nor Marouane Fellaini were a remotely adequate replacement and their limitations (as well as Herrera’s uncharacteristic poor showing) sabotaged the attacking portion of the manager’s game-plan. Many of the critics are unlikely to be silenced, for their position is one of ignorance or conscious bias, but the Manchester Derby last night demonstrated how vitally important to United Paul Pogba has been and will be this season and next.