Friday, April 12, 2024
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Manchester City show Manchester United that they are ordinary with lack of talent and depth dooming Red Devils

Manchester United are not the side of their loftier-than-it-might-be league position, their run of wins at the start of last month, the column inches devoted to them. That much was clear as they played out what must have been a very familiar win for their opponents. Manchester City emerged victorious from what feels like the same game they have playing on a loop over recent weeks, one where a plucky opponent started out with a well-executed plan but had no answer for the individual excellence of the treble winners.

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Erik ten Hag might have bemoaned the foul that wasn’t when Marcus Rashford crumpled under the briefest contact from Kyle Walker, but the United boss might also take pride from a gameplan that, for a time, asked real questions of City. Like Thomas Frank, Sean Dyche and Mauricio Pochettino, Ten Hag delivered an initial approach that exploited his side’s greatest threats while probing what few weaknesses there were in the champions’ rearguard. Not only did Bruno Fernandes and Scott McTominay add tenacity to the first line of defense but they served as extremely useful outballs for Andre Onana early on, his long balls into the space behind Kyle Walker serving as United’s best method for advancing up the field.

When Rashford crashed home from range in the eighth minute, the first of several breakway chances that would come his way, when Erling Haaland chose to strike at an open goal with a raised boot rather than a stooped head: you could convince yourself that this time would be different to every other City game you have seen at this time of the year. It couldn’t. The diligence and organization with which United defended their box was impressive. So was Andre Onana’s shot-stopping. Ahead of him, Kobbie Mainoo, McTominay and Fernandes set the tone, there were none of the rash challenges that United often resort to on the biggest occasions. If they could have kept that up for 90 minutes, perhaps United had a chance. We’ve all seen what happens when ordinary meets City’s extraordinary, though. The opponents can’t deliver their best all the way through. If they could, they wouldn’t be getting so many midtable results.

In due course, Pep Guardiola negated United’s best route to goal, Nathan Ake and Walker appearing drop a little deeper in possession to protect against the counter, and there was nothing to do. Over the course of 91 minutes, United registered one shot, a volley where Rashford connected with far more air than ball.

On the pitch and off the pitch, Ten Hag didn’t have the players to change the game for the better, though Sofyan Amrabat certainly managed to accelerate City’s progress to victory in the closing stages. As is so often the case for mid-table managers, there was one glaring crack in his side he simply could not paper over. Whenever the opportunity presented itself, City went at Victor Lindelof, masquerading as a left back with Luke Shaw and Tyrell Malacia out injured. The best player in the Premier League’s best team was not going to go 90 minutes without making Lindelof suffer and in due course Phil Foden did exactly that, breezing infield onto his left foot and thumping into Onana’s top right corner.

Ten Hag soon concluded that Lindelof couldn’t last out wide but this was defensive whack-a-mole, his only alternative being to thrust 19-year-old Willy Kambwala on at right back to undergo a remorseless interrogation from Kevin De Bruyne et al. Injuries are hurting United as they are almost every team in the Premier League but this manager had players on the bench who he recruited. Antony’s most notable contribution of the game was to fritter away a rare attacking opening by running into an offside position and then failing to beat his man anyway. Amrabat dug deeper, handing possession to Rodri, who slipped in Haaland for the goal he should have scored an hour earlier.

Only when the Norwegian struck in added time, 10 minutes after Foden’s second of the game, was this game truly over and it is perhaps a cause of a little concern for Guardiola that his side is taking so long to call off ordinary opposition. That is what United are and frankly what they have been at full strength. The Premier League table has been telling untruths for some time now but the reality is becoming clear. Ten Hag’s side might be sixth but they are nearer to Fulham in 12th than Aston Villa, 11 points ahead in fourth place. One only needed to look at the goal difference column, which now has United on minus-two, to know something has not been right this season whatever McTominay’s cavalcade of late winners might say.

This is a team giving up more xG than Bournemouth and Wolves, producing less than Brentford and Everton. They are 12th in the Premier League for xG difference, 12th for expected points, too. If better teams — Chelsea and Everton to name but two — had a points tally more commensurate with their performances than United would perhaps have gone to the Etihad with a surer sense of what they were. They must depart it well aware of what they are, a side who do well when they make City stretch themselves. In that sense then, this ought to be viewed as a good day for United.

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