ROB DRAPER: Man City are not quite the team that they were

ROB DRAPER: Man City are not quite the team that they were as Man United expose a glitch in the seemingly unstoppable machine that is Pep Guardiola’s team – but the division is better off with more than one dominant side!

  • Manchester City were beaten 2-1 by Manchester United in Saturday’s derby
  • Many had predicted Man City to walk the Premier League with Erling Haaland
  • This season there have been several sides with a good chance of success
  • The Norwegian was largely anonymous with 19 touches and five in the box 
  • READ: United get a huge VAR helping hand for Bruno Fernandes’ equaliser

The invention of the internet was a dark day for newspaper sages. There was a time when brash early-season predictions would be lost in the fish n chip paper, confined to incinerator and only retrieved by the most assiduous of librarians.

These days a quick Google search will shame the best of writers. So all those articles we wrote in August suggesting the Premier League might as well hand the title to Manchester City now that they that had signed Erling Haaland are retrievable in a second. There is no hiding place in 2023.

That it hasn’t quite turned out that way should be a cause for celebration, even if City fans will assume that is clear evidence of the convoluted conspiracy of media elites arraigned against them: a vibrant league requires more than one dominant team.

Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City are not quite the side that they have shown themselves to be in recent seasons

And the seemingly unstoppable machine that was Pep Guardiola City appears to have a glitch. Haaland might be a monster of a player but it is as though the cogs that once ran like clockwork are now slightly out of kilter. There was plenty of debate over the offside law and its impact on this game after Bruno Fernandes controversial equalising goal. What was clear, however, was that City aren’t quite what they were.

After this game Pep Guardiola told BT Sport that he didn’t care about winning the Premier League as ‘we have won a lot.’ He would later clarify this, along the lines that he couldn’t be worrying about that right now, as he had more immediate issues to sort. ‘Come on, of course I care about the Premier League!’ he said. ‘But if you don’t win, you don’t win, you’re not going to win the next 25 years. We will fight, but sometimes football is like this.’

Of course, coming so soon after the Carabao Cup defeat at Southampton, a performance Guardiola said was unacceptable, this might feel like a trend of sorts This was different he argued. 

Erik ten Hag’s derby day gambles worked wonders as Manchester United came back to win

A Bruno Fernandes-inspired Manchester United exposed a glitch in the machine on Saturday

They were the victim of a classic United counter attack victory, the best of which hark back to golden days, as Guardiola referenced Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney and the great Alex Ferguson teams. 

‘It was like when we played them in the Champions League with Barcelona, they are a great transition team.’ But the overall performance was satisfactory, he said. ‘We want to try but I want us to behave in this way sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t happen as you have to be better and better and better to win this league.’

That maybe but in the first half there were multiple City attacks that broke down simply because of a misplaced pass or a failure to read a team-mate’s intention. Haaland himself had 19 touches in the game and five in the box. 

He will never be a striker in the Carlos Tevez mode, who can contribute to the passing carousel and take his place in it comfortably. City are adjusting to a big No.9, a Viking of a striker, a tactic which Guardiola has never really tried before. And in doing so, they have lost something of their mojo.

Luke Shaw was picked to start at centre-back to nullify the threat of the deadly Erling Haaland

Haaland was largely anonymous throughout the game with only 19 touches on the ball

No-one would be surprised if they closed the fine point gap on Arsenal in the second half of the season and won their fifth Premier League title in six years. No-one would be stunned if they eventually finish 12 points clear of United, even though the club are now a point apart. No-one would be astounded if they turn into one of the great teams of all time with Haaland. It’s just they’re not there yet.

The machine is close to functioning as it once did. There are moments that still draw gasps of appreciation. Like that Little Riyad Mahrez back heel on 54 minutes, which played in Kevin De Bruyne on 54 minute. On this occasion it resulted in a soft header from Bernardo Silva But that channel was rich seam for City to mine. 

On 60 minutes, Mahrez played on those classic little inside passes at which City specialise and which so torment defenders for De Bruyne. The Belgian accelerating into your penalty area with time and space is a terrifying prospect and this time he dinked the ball into an area that invited Jack Grealish to head home.

As such, this felt like a classic City game; at times frustrating but one in which their superior possession would ultimately tell. And to be honest there wasn’t much between that goal and Bruno Fernandes’ 78th minute equaliser to challenge that narrative. 

Nobody would be surprised if City still managed to close the gap to Arsenal and win a fifth league title

Alejandro Garnacho came on for Manchester United and changed the game for his side

But the furore over Fernandes strike, prompted by the offside run of Marcus Rashford, which saw a committee of City players surround referee Stuart Atwell, bewildered as to why it had been allowed, galvanised United and seemed to unduly concern City.

It was almost as if it was better for United scoring after such a protracted delay than if had the goal stood straightway, for the tension involved lifted the crowd and the home team, whereas City seemed a little stunned their good work might go to waste. ‘We still should not concede the second one,’ said Guardiola. 

‘That is where we have to improve. The performance against Southampton I cannot defend. But apart from that we have played good. In terms of results, this is not that good season as we had in past but I have said to the players: “Don’t waste energy thinking want happened here. Focus on Spurs’ which is their next game on Thursday.” I would not say we win or lose for this action so don’t waste energy thinking of past.’

Guardiola has told his side not to focus on what happened at Old Trafford but to turn their attentions to the next game

Four minutes later would come Alejandro Garnacho’s dash into the area, his strength and speed getting him past Nathan Ake to squeeze in the cross with from which Marcus Rashford connected. 

Few would have consider this a serious proposition when Brighton, Brentford and then City were taking Erik ten Hag’s team apart. And yet here we are: Rashford is equalling records, United have coherence and cojones. 

And ten Hag will be eying up the leaders Arsenal. City and United are both in a title race yet it is the red team with momentum.

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