Until half-time, everything had panned out just as the doctor ordered. The home side and champions-elect were two goals to the good – the fireworks were being set up as Manchester City were a mere 45 minutes away from winning the Premier League against the eternal enemy in front of their own fans who have waited decades and decades for this moment. And out came a different Manchester United side to the one that went into the tunnel at half-time and wrote their own climax to the story.
As United completed a remarkable turnaround to score 3 goals and deliver a strong blow to City’s morale after being two goals down themselves and thoroughly outplayed in the first 45 minutes, Jose Mourinho laid down a marker for next season as to what his side – even when pushed to a corner, are capable of doing. That Manchester United can rock up to the Etihad Stadium where Manchester City, the runaway champions have not tasted defeat for 70 weeks in succession – and do a job on them – not to mention, when it was least expected of them.
There were plenty of sub-plots to what will go down as one of the most entertaining and memorable Manchester derbies in recent years and from a Manchester United perspective, the result and the performance were all about the future and how this can spur United on to better things in 2018/19.
1. A real turning point for Paul Pogba?
Paul Pogba had been in the news (unsurprisingly) in recent weeks – for several reasons – not least due to his rumoured disagreements with Jose Mourinho. Before the game, Pep Guardiola’s attempt to throw another huge spanner in the works by claiming the Frenchman was offered to the blue half of Manchester seemed to work as Pogba struggled to influence the game in a midfield three flanked on either side by Matic and Herrera. As City pressed higher and more effectively, United stuttered and were pinned back, ended up with no attempts on goal through the entire first half.
Two down and with nothing to lose, it was apparent that the Portuguese had loosened the shackles allowing the dynamic midfielder to venture further forward. This suited Pogba – his strength and intelligence in the final third really hurt City and before they realised, Pogba had brought his side back into the game. His link-up play with Sanchez, Herrera and Lingard for both the goals showed a glimpse of how lethal that partnership could be in the future in a fluid 4-3-3 setup.
His two goals at the Etihad providing the platform for an important fight back in the season may ultimately end up being the defining moment for himself and Manchester United under Mourinho – where all doubts are removed as to whether he is the right man to take this club forward. It could well be the turning point for him on a personal level as he finally played the role of a talisman he was expected to – when the odds were stacked against him and his side.
2. Alexis Sanchez has arrived at Manchester United
Amidst the brace by Pogba and a redeeming winner from Chris Smalling, it was Alexis Sanchez’s performance in the second half that really slipped under the radar. The Chilean – lead the charge for United, hassled City when they were in possession in their own half. His assists for the second and third goal showed his quality and eye for a pass he has always had in his game in addition to his ability to get goals on his own.
His almost telepathic connection to Paul Pogba signalled the fact that they are finally understanding each other on the pitch which can only be good news for United. Sanchez validates Pogba’s license to dart forward into the box for he is the only one at United who could find him from most angles. The equaliser from Pogba was a fine example of that partnership blossoming into a game changer for United. It changed the result on Saturday and who is to say what it could do for Manchester United next season.
3. United are being taken in the right direction
Progress is relative and there has been plenty of debate throughout the campaign as to whether there has been a substantial improvement from United under Jose Mourinho since he took over in 2016. Saturday’s result has only gone on to emphasise just how much they have – since the duller tail-end of 2016/16 under Louis van Gaal.
United, given their current points tally of 71 (2.21 points per game), could comfortably cross the 80-point mark should they continue the same rate. The last time they accrued more than 80 points was when they ended up winning the league under Sir Alex. With a strong home record (only 1 loss at Old Trafford in the league), United have also managed to beat every other side in the league at least once in the season.
On top of that, United’s record against the top six has been respectable this season with wins against Liverpool, Chelsea and Spurs at home, Arsenal and now City away from home. Crucially, most of Mourinho’s signings have integrated well into the side and are compatible with his peculiar style of man-management, arguably with the exception of Henrikh Mkhitaryan who was promptly sold in January.
The Red Devils could still end the season with some silverware to show for which is important for Mourinho – with the only real downside being the unexpected end to their Champions League run.
With the right additions in the Summer, United should be challenging for the Premier League – but this time very much in the thick of the action.