In a one-sided night of football, Manchester City smashed Manchester United 1-3 at Old Trafford.
Pep Guardiola’s men took a commanding lead of their Carabao Cup semi-final with a dominant first-leg win over their rivals. What did we learn?
1. Ole’s at the wheel, the bus is in a ditch
Every now and again the term “footballing lesson” gets thrown around to describe a big win. It’s rarely the case, moreso just that one side played well and another poorly. This match, however, was a pure footballing lesson. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has had a rough time of it lately; United came into the game off the back of two hideous displays against Arsenal and Wolves after all, but this was something else.
Solskjaer is a club legend, and his ability to identify good talent that fits a coherent squad image whilst also being capable of massively improving United also seems to be genuine. But as a coach he is as rudimentary and basic as many feared. He can’t organise his side to do anything play on the break, and half the time they can’t even get that right.
Solskjaer lets his young players play, great, but he gives them such little direction. United’s attacks have zero structure and alright you can blame some of this on personnel, but coaches have done more with less. And yes you can say that City are just too good, but Arsenal and Wolves aren’t and United were anaemic against them too. They just do not look like a coherent team that knows what to do.
There was a moment in the first-half where Brandon Williams advanced bravely towards halfway on the field. He saw Marcus Rashford running diagonally towards the touchline, creating a huge space in his wake. He played the ball to Rashford and then sensibly accelerated into that space, expecting a return flick to set him free to run at the City defence. Except United are so poorly coached that Rashford didn’t even figure this to be an option and instead took the ball into his stride and ran it into a crowd of defenders.
It was a small moment, but that it came just a minute before City took the lead seemed illustrative of the difference between the sides. One was being coached excellently, the other was left to its own devices to fashion a chance out of hope, guts and bits of plywood. City’s complacency may give United a smidgen of hope ahead of the second-leg, but that shouldn’t be mistaken for Solskjaer adjusting well. Bringing on a defensive midfielder when an opponent is gutting you up the middle of the pitch is the most basic of managerial switches. This club are still a disaster. Yes, United need new players, but they also need a new manager.
2. Pep’s Revenge
Manchester United humiliated Manchester City at the Etihad earlier in the season. The score was only 1-2 but it could have been oh so much more as The Red Devils tore Guardiola’s men to pieces on the break. Pep Guardiola had to be absolutely fuming at his side, but secretly must have delighted when the Carabao Cup threw up a chance for revenge.
Obviously it helped that this time Harry Maguire was absent, but City’s gameplan was nearly perfect. They played with no striker, meaning that the two United centre-backs had no one to mark. Neither of them is the brightest spark and whilst Lindelof is generally solid he is prone to pushing up and taking risks even though he lacks of athleticism to recover if he misses, which he often does, Jones is a disaster who nearly always makes the wrong decision. So when Bernardo Silva was 25 yards from goal shaping to shoot, did Jones step up to cover? Nope. 1-0.
After that Pep’s men took full control. With City’s sharp movement in attack, United’s defence was cut to ribbons repeatedly. When they moved the ball around in midfield, begging an overly aggressive move, United’s defenders dutifully pushed up like a pair of clowns and then all it needed was some delicious movement in behind. Riyad Mahrez did this for the second goal, Kevin de Bruyne for the third.
City’s domination was so total that the only thing stopping them from carving The Red Devils apart was their own complacency and Raheem Sterling’s inability to score against Manchester United. So of course United pulled one back, but honestly City should probably have scored at least seven goals tonight. They were supremely dominant, and Pep Guardiola just has to hope that his side can bring the same intensity in the second leg because if they do, they’re heading back to Wembley for a third consecutive year.
3. Bizarro Duncan Edwards
“Jones, arguably the way he is looking, could be our best ever player. I think Jones may be one of the best players we have ever had, not matter where we play him.” – Sir Alex Ferguson, 2013
Now, everyone and anyone can be wrong in football. Predictions on how a player might turn out are always a massive crapshoot. But surely there has never been a greater disparity between a prediction and the actual outcome as Fergie’s claim about Phil Jones?
Jones is an anti-footballer. Nothing about him makes sense. He’s athletic yet always seems to be on the verge of falling over (or actually falling, as he did today for City’s third goal). He was compared to the great Duncan Edwards yet he doesn’t seem to have the foggiest idea how to play centre-back, let alone any other positions.
For what it’s worth he looked brilliant as a teenager so maybe he’s just like Guy Pearce in Memento and the sheer horror of getting dumped out of the Champions League at the group stage by Basel in late 2011 forced him to destroy his memory so now he can’t remember all of the tactical knowledge that made him good when he was young.
That makes as much sense as the rest of what Jones did, does and will do. How Manchester United sold Chris Smalling and retained him this summer one will never know. How they’re considering offloading Marcos Rojo and keeping Jones in January makes no sense. Jones is a walking, talking, gurning disaster. He was at fault for City’s first goal, nowhere to be seen for their second and fell over like a drunk faun for their third. He’s a buffoon. A “this is your brain on drugs” advert come to life. The physical manifestation of the sad trombone sound. A cornucopia of failure and the Bizarro Duncan Edwards.
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4. Brandon Williams is the truth
If there was one positive for Manchester United, it was the performance of Brandon Williams. The 19-year-old left-back has emerged this season and is genuinely United’s best left-back right now. In the first-half tonight City deliberately targeted him (because even they knew the futility of attacking Aaron Wan-Bissaka) and partly because City are amazing, and partly because Phil Jones was his centre-back, Williams didn’t have the easiest time of things as he was bombarded from all angles.
What was notable, however, was that his head never dropped. Williams kept on playing the game his way. Confident and aggressive. He stepped up to tackle City men, he played ambitious passes through pressure and into team-mates. Even in stoppage time he was the one (along with Fred) driving United forward in attack and trying to make things happen. This kid is the truth.
5. City can go for cup glory
Manchester City have thrown away their Premier League title with a series of inept displays in the league, but with their win tonight they have moved one step closer to a cup final. Their record in the Carabao Cup under Pep Guardiola does indicate that they stand a good chance of winning this, but they are still in the FA Cup and Champions League too.
On their day, City can still blow anyone away. So what they need to do now is ensure that they focus the majority of their attention on their upcoming cup ties so that they can play to their absolute peak performance in those competitions. Retaining the Carabao Cup and FA Cup would be huge for City salvaging their season, but if they were able to finally reach their peak levels in Europe and win the Champions League then City could still make this a great season.