While the 2-0 scoreline is not as immediately galling as the 5-0 reverse against Liverpool, Manchester United’s performance in losing 2-0 to Manchester City carried a lot of the same hallmarks. United looked ill-prepared to handle a side who were far superior on the day, and left it too late to show the spirit required to get a result. It seems almost superfluous to say questions will be asked of manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer after this defeat, because those questions have never stopped being asked in the last two weeks.
United’s afternoon could not have got off to a worse start. Eric Bailly invited acclaim for his display against Atalanta on Tuesday night, but scored a disastrous own goal to open the scoring at Old Trafford. Kyle Walker had crossed for Ilkay Gundogan, Victor Lindelof’s clearance only went as far as Joao Cancelo, and his driven cross was turned in by Bailly at the near post.
The home side had started cautiously, with the same nominal 3-4-1-2 that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has opted for in their last three games. In practice, the formation was more of a 3-5-1-1, with Fernandes tucking in alongside Fred and Scott McTominay, with Mason Greenwood dropping into a number ten position. United were content to let City have the ball, and even after Bailly’s misfortune they still tried to remain compact while waiting for countering opportunities.
Despite this pragmatic approach, the away side were able to break through on a number of occasions. It was goalkeeper David De Gea that ensured United did not go into the half time break facing a cricket score. Aaron Wan-Bissaka left Phil Foden in acres of space, and the England star crossed for Kevin De Bruyne to draw a block. The rebound ran to Gabriel Jesus, whose effort was superbly saved by De Gea.
The Spaniard was called into action multiple times over the ensuing minutes. Lindelof nearly caused another own goal when blocking a Foden centre, but De Gea saved well with his feet. De Bruyne and Cancelo then both had shots excellently-repelled.
Unfortunately, the man who was responsible for United only being a single goal behind, was also responsible for them going two goals behind. Bernardo Silva softly beat the Spain international at his near post from a Cancelo cross. The goal looked easier to stop than much of what De Gea had faced so far, but it’s inception spoke to the defensive frailties United had displayed all game.
Solskjaer, who has often been criticised for his in-game management, did try to effect change at half time. Bailly was hooked in favour of Jadon Sancho, necessitating a switch to a back four. While his side showed more spirit and drive in the second half, they did not show enough quality. United increased their paltry share of possession from the first half, but did very little with it. Perhaps the cruellest but most reflective stat is the fact United had two more shots on target at their own goal, through Lindelof and Bailly, than they did City’s. Ronaldo’s first-half effort, saved by Ederson, was the only time they fashioned a real chance.
Marcus Rashford and Donny van de Beek both entered the fray late, as did Alex Telles as a result of Luke Shaw exiting through a concussion substitution. These changes, along with Sancho’s introduction, did nothing to stem the tide. City’s play slowed down, but they still had moments where they carved United open with ease.
If it wasn’t for De Gea, this could have been numerically similar to the Liverpool rout. City were every bit as dominant as Jurgen Klopp’s side had been two weeks ago. It was an immensely professional display from Guardiola’s men, bouncing back from their own humbling against Crystal Palace last weekend.
United find themselves in the same holding pattern they have existed in for weeks. What Solskjaer is doing isn’t working, but there is a paucity of available replacements as manager. There are a number of talented players in the dressing room, but no system that seems to make them work cohesively. United have currently two gears. Either Ronaldo scores and they get a result, or he doesn’t and they lose. This cannot be allowed to continue. Whether it will be allowed to continue, remains to be seen.