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Deconstructing the Derby: How Manchester Became Red

Rahul Aggarwal & Ashwin Menon, Undergraduate batch of 2022

With Manchester City scampering to remain relevant in the race for the Premier League title, and Manchester United flailing about in mid-table, this wasn’t your average derby. That is not to say that it wasn’t pivotal to both teams: City knew the door on three successive championships was shutting fast, with no margin for error. Over in the red camp, United, buoyed by their victory over Tottenham, were desperate to claw back into the top four spots. Ambitions had changed; the animosity, not quite.

The 179th derby at the Etihad Stadium lived up to the hype. City were playing at home and were expected to win, despite defensive frailties: at their fortress, they’re effectively impenetrable.

This memo clearly didn’t reach Anthony Martial and an imperious Marcus Rashford. United’s attacking duo ran City ragged, with Rashford alone wreaking havoc in the blue ranks. United’s 2-1 win eventually felt every bit deserved: City just weren’t up for it, and their local rivals took full advantage.

What went wrong for City?

The tension in the crowd was pretty palpable when Man United got their first shot inside 5 minutes, Daniel James stinging the palms of City custodian Ederson. United built on that, with some free-flowing football in the early exchanges. After James, Rashford had a crack but fluffed his lines. City weren’t able to settle into their rhythm at all, getting sliced open repeatedly by United’s speedy frontline. City looked jaded: apart from Kevin De Bruyne, a perennial livewire, Pep Guardiola’s side did not seem to have much fight. What would alarm City’s Catalan coach was their limp response to going behind to Rashford’s expertly taken penalty following Bernardo Silva’s rash challenge.

Silva seemed to be City in microcosm. Generally, so effective, this was one of his more forgettable games. With United packing the midfield, the Portuguese international did not have much room to play with, but for a player of his quality, one would expect better. He was lazy -typified by the reckless tackle that led to the penalty – and was wasteful in possession. These are worrying signs for Guardiola. Having invested so much in his engine room players, a lax show right before the fixture pile-up before Christmas was not what City needed. One could cut them some slack: the long-term injury to Aymeric Laporte especially doesn’t help an already leaky backline. Fernandinho, a natural midfielder playing at the back, soon found Martial and Rashford too hot to handle. The England striker, fresh from his midweek brace against Tottenham, was loving the vast acres of green left for him to run into by the home team. Martial too looked a player reborn, taking up spaces, stretching City’s defence thin. Soon enough, the second goal arrived, Martial’s drive beating Ederson’s desperate near post lunge, clipping the inside of the woodwork and ruffling the nets. 2-0 down, it was a mountain to climb for the home side. With their fragility on full display, City was fortunate to not be further behind by the halfway mark.

City did have chances of their own, with de Bruyne looking to feed Gabriel Jesus all the time. Jesus, however, just does not offer the same mobility and the same potency as City’s injured all time top scorer, Sergio Aguero. It would be hard to try and emerge out of the Argentinian’s shadow, and Jesus’ time at the Etihad has seen him firmly relegated to the bench. This was an opportunity for the Brazil international to hog the headlines for once, but instead, his shortcomings became all too apparent. A wonderful finisher he may be, but he just doesn’t offer the same kind of movement that Aguero does. The pockets of space in the opposition box remain vacant. He gets his fair share of goals when he leads the City line, but the threat is that much diminished without Aguero.

Pep’s bigger concern, however, will still be his defence, and the torrid time United’s attackers gave Angelino. The full-back evidently hasn’t quite adapted to English football. In spite of his devilish deliveries from the wing, he isn’t the finished product. How City yearn for the stability of a Bacary Sagna, or cult hero Pablo Zabaleta. Angelino, for all his qualities, isn’t a patch on either yet, which is worrisome for City’s already depleted defence. Said defence did, however, give the Etihad something to smile about, when Nicolas Otamendi headed home late on.

Ole saves his job?

The man Guardiola exchanged handshakes with has been a man who by now resembles a perpetually stressed mannequin. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would have come into this game knowing that defeat here would be the final nail in his coffin.

The onset of winter in football brings with it the frigidity of uncertainty, and true to predictions, the Premier League managerial merry-go-round has well and truly started. With the sacking of Mauricio Pochettino last week, followed by Arsenal coach Unai Emery, the Manchester United boss was under serious pressure.

The peculiar thing with United is that they take their coach’s job to the very edge and dangle it over the ledge for the better part of his stay at the club. Just when it’s about to slip, they somehow yank it back with a display so assuring and so effective, it’s only conspicuous by its absence the rest of the time. With games against Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham Hotspur and Guardiola’s Manchester City within the span of a week, few expected Solskjaer to last beyond Christmas.

At this point it feels like the Norwegian thrives on the speculation of him losing his job: it kicks something into United, a belief, and a verve. Spurs were trumped 2-1, and City too were vanquished by the same scoreline. Playing with a panache that, given their recent profligacy is downright uncharacteristic, Manchester United came flying out of the blocks, driving at City’s obvious defensive troubles. Rashford, often United’s best player in these big games, was having a field day, chances sandwiching his penalty goal.

United were happy to sit back after Martial doubled the visitors’ lead. City had possession but lacked penetration. Aaron Wan-Bissaka played an unbelievable game, keeping Raheem Sterling completely out of the equation. Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof were rocks at the heart of the red defence, blocking, clearing and harrying anything that came their way. Even Fred, generally a rabbit in the headlights, was composed in front of the backline, releasing the ball with nonchalance never seen before. Daniel James played an incredible game, chasing down everything with unwavering spirits, not giving City a moment of peace. On the night, United were just too clinical. Despite having almost double the number of shots, City barely worked David De Gea in the United goal. In the last 15 minutes, it was a struggle as Otamendi pulled one back for the champions from a corner. Sniffing danger, City poured forward, and this time De Gea was called into action, pulling off a blinding save to preserve his team’s lead. Eventually, despite a nervy finale, United had risen to the occasion under Solskjaer yet again: Paris Saint Germain, Liverpool, Tottenham and now City, again.

Otamendi’s attempts at driving City’s late charge eventually came to nought. For the last time this decade – a tumultuous one for both clubs – Manchester emerged red.

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