Manchester United were fairly good throughout their Carabao Cup semi-final defeat but Manchester City are fully in their groove right now.

 

1) There were shots. There were scuffles. There were numerous unsolicited attacks from the right wing. But above all else, there was a proper Manchester derby with proper stakes and proper performances. This enticing League Cup semi-final, for the most part, did not disappoint.

Roy Keane was so ecstatic at half-time that his most acerbic take was to say Raheem Sterling probably should have passed at one point instead of running headfirst into the nearest Luke Shaw. He revelled in a real semi-final and for good reason. The first half was excellent from both sides and while only Manchester City really endured thereafter, it remained a game of high quality throughout. Their meeting less than a month ago ‘looked every inch like a contest between a pair of mid-table strivers’. This was abiding proof that both are equipped to at least challenge at the top of the Premier League table, even if only the League Cup owners will compete for the season’s first trophy.

 

2) Manchester United really did give a fine account of themselves overall but the main takeaway many will have from this game is that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer might be developing erectile managerial dysfunction; his struggle with frustrating semis is real.

He will cling to the positives of reaching four in a year or so but the fear must be that stumbling each time they get this far becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, a mental block, a seed planted in the minds of players and manager that they cannot produce when it really matters. The problem is that is only removed one way: by making that final step. Jurgen Klopp reduced his infamous recent cup record to “moments that are unlucky and lucky” and noted before he and Liverpool finally broke their duck in 2019 that “we are much more mature; we are getting older”. Often time is all it takes.

“In the last seven years I am a world-record holder in winning semi-finals – I could write a book about it, but nobody would read it,” Klopp added then. Solskjaer might be interested at least.

 

3) He has, after all, often spoke of how “desperate” his players are to win a trophy together. Only this week he noted from first-hand experience that a first piece of silverware can be a gateway “drug” of sorts, where “you become addicted to winning” thereafter.

It will be interesting to see how much patience he is afforded in that regard. Mauricio Pochettino had little over five years at Tottenham, started from a much lower base and was discarded a matter of months after reaching a Champions League final in the same season he spent no money whatsoever, replaced by a manager with a proven competition pedigree. There is every chance Solskjaer takes Manchester United as far as he can before someone else is brought in to complete the job.

 

4) The hosts did tail off in the second half as Manchester City took hold. If there is one key difference between these two sides it’s that the winners had a dedicated attacking plan – although both their goals stemmed from set-pieces – while Manchester United were relying a little more on a moment of individual brilliance that did not come.

One can count the number of bad games Bruno Fernandes has had in 12 months at Manchester United on two hands, but the amount of matches he has failed to impact would require only one. Even at his most wasteful the Portuguese tends to create something out of nothing. These were 90 below-par minutes from a player who looks physically tired of the schedule and mentally drained by the weight of expectation. Others really need to step up more often and shoulder that burden.

 

5) Manchester City are a prime example. Kevin de Bruyne is undoubtedly their best and most creative player but it is an exception that his teammates depend on him to play well; at Manchester United the current rule seems to be to look to Fernandes when inspiration is needed.

The comparisons are otherwise inevitable. In fairness De Bruyne has been there long enough for Manchester City to build a proper system around him that helps maximise the strengths of others too. Fernandes has proven himself similarly worthy of that sort of treatment.

 

6) It certainly helps having a supreme centre-half around which a surprisingly durable defence can be established. Ruben Dias looks like an unbelievably good purchase, straight from Liverpool’s school of thinking that a record signing can be a bargain if it solves a problem position almost entirely by itself.

Gary Neville was justifiably gushing in co-commentary as Dias leapt into blocks and challenges. He and John Stones have formed a wonderful partnership but the Portuguese is the clear leader from the back. That first-half block from a Marcus Rashford shot was exquisite, as was the second-half interception of Anthony Martial’s low cross. It seemed weird when Aymeric Laporte was unceremoniously dropped; less so now.

 

7) The contrast between Dias and Harry Maguire is intriguing. The latter was actually pretty solid, placed excellently to block two driven crosses as the first half petered out with Manchester City on the front foot. But he proved indecisive in the crucial moments: two presentable headed chances and for the opening goal.

Shaw might be blamed for failing to pick up Stones but Maguire has little excuse for failing to clear that free-kick before it reached him. It is not the first time his apparent refusal to take responsibility in a situation like that has cost Manchester United: RB Leipzig’s third goal last month springs to mind. For a club captain, it is a far from ideal trait.

 

8) The lingering thought is that Maguire, at best, exists on a level below the elite centre-halves. It does not bode particularly well that the absence of Eric Bailly coincided with Manchester United’s loss of their recent defensive solidity.

That has plenty to do with the standard of opposition, too, but Victor Lindelof really does represent a drop in quality. His 20 starts this season have resulted in just five clean sheets: against Leipzig in the Champions League, Chelsea, Manchester City and West Brom in the Premier League and Brighton in the League Cup. Not good enough.

 

9) There were three disallowed goals in the opening 24 minutes. Each time the linesman delayed in raising his flag for offside until the ball was in the net. That is the actual rule, to be fair to them, but it’s also sodding infuriating.

Honestly, there was one move after about half an hour that saw Rashford released down the right by a great pass from Fred. He then cut inside and played it central to Martial, who flicked it to Pogba before the ball went out of play after a 50/50. Only then, about ten seconds after Fred’s pass, did the linesman raise his flag to denote that Rashford was offside in the bloody first place.

Again, that’s not a complaint regarding the officials (who were pretty much flawless actually). It’s just the exact sort of slight grievance that should be aired on platforms such as these to keep things ticking over nicely.

 

10) Fernandinho makes a laughably big difference to this Manchester City team. Rodri is good but he just lacks that same zip as the Brazilian, whose glorious goal capped a fine display of control, poise and that meme of him emptying his pockets with a picture of some keys, a wallet, a phone and a Bruno Fernandes.

It was quite the mismatch against Fred and Scott McTominay. Both were actually quite good on the ball, particularly the former in terms of breaking the lines, but neither offered anything close to enough protection. Fernandinho, eight and 11 years their senior respectively, was the mobile hub that stirred Manchester City and shut Manchester United down when needed.

 

11) Keane was actually right about Sterling in his half-time assessment. He absolutely should have cut the ball back to the lurking De Bruyne on the edge of the area but instead simply ran into Shaw under the assumption that Martin Atkinson would be swayed into awarding a penalty after this of all weeks.

It is the one glaring flaw in Sterling’s arsenal. Given too much time to think he so often makes the wrong choice, or none at all. Fernandinho released him into acres of space with seconds to spare yet instead of going for a shot or pass he tried to play for a penalty. He did the same thing against Chelsea for Manchester City’s third goal before De Bruyne came to the rescue.

 

12) Had Rashford controlled that Fred ball over the top under no pressure late in the first half, this game would surely have followed a different path. Zack Steffen had strayed far from his line to close the space but Rashford would easily have beaten him, only to miscue that first touch as the chance dissipated.

Aside from a couple of moments where he got the better of Oleksandr Zinchenko, the England forward struggled. Martial was worse. Manchester United really missed 33-year-old free summer signing Edinson Cavani but let’s not go there.

 

13) So confident is Stones now that he is scoring goals in cup semi-final derbies with his actual penis. Some anoraks might focus on his renaissance and role in one of the sturdiest defences in Europe but take nothing away from the beauty of Stones nudging crosses in with his Stones.

The slightly protracted VAR check after his goal brought us ever closer to football’s holy grail: a goal being ruled out for an offside member. It is a matter of time.

 

14) On the one hand Solskjaer is absolutely right that “it takes a little bit of time” for some new players to get their chance in a team. “He is always ready, he works hard in training, positive and he will make differences in many games for us this season, but he’ll grow more and more even for next year,” he said of Donny van de Beek this week.

But on the other, give him more than two minutes to make an impact and you might notice a difference in his progression. Only nine of the Dutchman’s 20 appearances so far have been for 45 minutes or longer. Introducing Mason Greenwood as his first substitute with a quarter of an hour left was also too late but honestly, play your Champions League semi-finalist and domestic title winner a bit more.

 

15) At some stage Manchester City might have to sign an actual left-back to play at actual left-back but in the interim Zinchenko will continue to be a flawed yet fantastic option. The nuance of the full-back role in this side, that expects to dominate possession more often than not, means that his weaknesses in defence are not exposed as often as they otherwise might be.

That allows his ability in possession to flourish. That line-breaking pass under immense pressure near the corner flag in his own half that led to De Bruyne testing the structural integrity of the post in the opening stages was sublime. With Dias ushering him through his defensive requirements Zinchenko might yet establish himself as the medium to long-term answer in a problem position.

 

16) It is only by the final conclusion that Pep Guardiola gets his first formal mention. That is no reflection of his management, such has been the mastery behind his transformation of Manchester City.

There were more than a few sceptics when he extended his deal at the Etihad Stadium by two years in November. The heavy defeat to Leicester a couple of months prior still lingered and losing to Tottenham in their very next game after the contract announcement was not the finest start. Yet since that disappointment in north London, Manchester City have won nine games, drawn three, scored 24 goals, conceded three and reached another major final.

The opportunity to avenge their recent setbacks against Jose Mourinho will actually come after their next Premier League meeting in February. By that point Manchester City might have established a lead at the top because no team in the country looks quite as good. Hell, no team in Europe has kept as many clean sheets this season. Guardiola was not supposed to be capable of a rebuild yet Manchester City’s reinvention as a reliably solid team with a functional if not exceptional attack is well past the wait for planning permission.

Matt Stead

 



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