Manchester City’s coronation as Premier League winners will have to wait, after their fierce rivals gatecrashed the party on Saturday evening, achieving a stunning 3-2 comeback victory, having been seemingly dead and buried at halftime. This Manchester Derby presented City a once in a generation (perhaps lifetime) opportunity to secure the title at home against their local rivals, but United showed amazing resilience and character to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and postpone City’s celebrations until at least the next round of fixtures.
Manchester City have utterly dominated the Premier League this year, only losing one match before the derby, and collecting 84 of 93 points available to them. They are still on track to break all time records in points tally (95 set by Chelsea in 2004/05), most goals (Chelsea 2009/10), and most wins (again Chelsea, 2017). Pep Guardiola deserves immense credit for the manner in which they have imposed their style of play on virtually every opponent, without having to make dramatic changes to his footballing philosophy to get results. In this way, they are arguably the most dominant Premier League team of all time, and entered the match on Saturday with an air of invincibility.
Manchester United were actually quite solid in the first 20 minutes, their midfield trio of Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera holding firm without possession, not allowing City’s possession football to isolate and expose the back four. However, the breakthrough came in the 25th minute when City captain Vincent Kompany bullied Chris Smalling to head in from a corner. This was eerily similar to another title deciding derby in April 2012, where again Kompany escaped the attentions of Smalling to score the only goal in a game that ensured City’s title hopes would be in their own hands.
After the opener, the quality of city’s football was imperious, Pep’s decision to play without a traditional striker allowed City to find gaps in United’s defence, especially between Chris Smalling and Eric Bailly. Bernando and David Silva, Raheem Sterling and Ilkay Gundogan were able to make dangerous forward runs, with the latter punishing United with a smart turn and finish into the far corner to make it 2-0. City had all the momentum at this point, and should have gone into halftime 4-0 up had Raheem Sterling converted two gilt-edged chances, but his finishing let him down on both occasions.
There were no changes from either team at halftime, and the first big chance of the second half went to City when Gundogan hit the frame of the post after good work from Raheem Sterling. Then, United’s record signing Paul Pogba turned the game on its head with two stunning goals. Pogba dominated most of the build up to the match, with the media reporting on Pep Guardiola’s sensational claim that Pogba’s agent Mino Raiola offered Manchester City the chance to buy him in the January transfer window, and the silly, baffling fixation on a blue streak in his hair heading into a game against City who also happen to play in blue.
Most rational human beings should know that Paul Pogba’s hair does not have any effect whatsoever on his performances on the pitch, let alone pundits like Gary Neville and Graeme Souness who are paid millions of pounds by Sky to offer ‘expert’ analysis that should educate the average fan watching from home. Paul Pogba is an extroverted personality, and isn’t afraid to express himself, whether that be through his haircuts or dancing. But Pogba has reached his position in the game because he has expressed himself quite spectacularly on the football pitch, and should be critiqued solely for his performances on it.
Pogba is a 4 time Serie A winner, excelling at one of the biggest clubs in world football, becoming their talisman in his final season at the club, deemed worthy of wearing their historic number 10 shirt. He was also voted into the FIFA Pro XI in 2015 as one of the best in the world at his position. His performances at United haven’t consistently mirrored those at Juventus, but it is intellectually lazy to attribute that to how he styles his hair. Plausible explanations could be his manager deploying him in a defensive midfield role that doesn’t allow him to showcase the full range of his talents, or him suffering a debilitating injury when he hit top form this season, or perhaps even his own application on the pitch at times. Hard criticism is fair given the importance of his role at United, but when Graeme Souness suggests that one of Europe’s most skilled midfielders’ best attribute is his ‘athleticism’, you wonder if Souness is watching the same sport as everyone else.
Pogba showcased some of his best qualities in kickstarting United’s comeback on Saturday. He made a great third man run to finish a smart passing move for his first, involving Alexis Sanchez and a magnificent chested lay-off by Ander Herrera. The second saw United move the ball well through midfield, Pogba shifted the ball wide to Alexis before making a barnstorming run behind City’s defence and finishing with a great header. He revealed in a post match interview with Thierry Henry that club captain Michael Carrick had encouraged him to make more runs in behind, clearly working to great effect here. Chris Smalling completed his turn from zero to hero by getting on the end of an Alexis Sanchez free kick and finishing with aplomb, stunning the stadium into near silence.
The game nearly boiled over, with flare ups between the teams over an overlooked foul on Sergio Aguero in the penalty area that should have seen Ashley Young sent off, and nasty fouls by Fernandinho, Danilo and Paul Pogba. Raheem Sterling missed another good chance from a corner, before David De Gea pulled out a magnificent save from a point blank Sergio Aguero header.
The result means that City must better United’s result next weekend to win the league, though they face a tough trip to Spurs at Wembley stadium, whilst United play minnows West Brom at home. United’s points tally of 71 is already the best in the Post Sir Alex Ferguson era, and are on course for an 89 points league total, which would be enough to win the league in each of the last 10 seasons. This represents progress for Jose Mourinho’s men, but a proper title challenge is a bare minimum for them next season.