Derbies tend to exist on an island. They defy form and narrative and trend. They stand alone, existing in their own space and time and micro-climate, like a snowy Grand Canyon in the middle of the Arizona desert.
By all rights, Saturday’s Manchester derby would hand City three points, all of them desperately needed to keep pace with a rampant Liverpool. City’s advantage over United was considerable, both in the context of the derby itself and the larger season.
Last year, City won both league games over United and it extended its winning streak at Old Trafford to three. While United held the historical advantage by 20 victories going into the game, City is plainly the better team now, coming off record-shattering back-to-back Premier League titles.
And then there’s this season itself. This is no vintage version of City, which has relinquished the iron grip it held the last two seasons under Pep Guardiola, suddenly growing inconsistent. But it was still a team entering the game with 10 wins from its first 15 matchdays. That was twice as many as United, whose boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer seems but a loss or two from making way for a sixth manager since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013.
Surely City would build on its momentum-rebuilding win at Burnley on Tuesday and close the gap with Liverpool. Because United couldn’t possibly replicate Wednesday’s upset of Jose Mourinho’s resurgent Tottenham Hotspur and eke out another win.
But derbies, man.
United won 2-1 in enemy territory, on first-half goals from Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial against a late consolation goal from Nicolas Otamendi, and the victory was wholly deserved. United produced a boatload of high-quality opportunities on the break and gave very few clear-cut chances away. Solskjaer has hardly wowed in almost a year in charge – his win percentage is the lowest out of any of the five post-Ferguson managers – but he continues to show a knack for getting his game plan exactly right against the stronger opponents.
It’s no big secret that City is prone to counterattacks. It’s simply the cost of business when you play a super-charged brand of soccer, which requires a very high defensive line. Typically, this risk and the occasional goals that result are offset by the benefits of all that possession high up the field. City tends to score so many goals – more than anybody in the league, at a rate of almost three per game – that it doesn’t matter the club has conceded more than twice as many as second-placed Leicester City.
But when a team is as quick on the counter as United, and when City doesn’t convert any of the chances it created in a much stronger second half, that equation just doesn’t add up.
The tone for the game was set in the opening moments when United’s Daniel James broke free but finished poorly. And then Bernardo Silva needlessly clattered into Rashford in the area. Referee Anthony Taylor initially didn’t call a penalty, but the Video Assistant Referee did and Rasford converted the spot-kick coolly.
United kept thundering away on the counters. A reinvigorated Fred teed up Rashford but he shanked a tricky finish. And then the England striker was given lots of time at the top of the box but pinged his curler off the bar. He wouldn’t get a second this time around, the way he had against Spurs, winning the game practically by himself.
It was left to Martial to get the second before the half-hour. His give-and-go with James untangled him from the first cluster of defenders, and then he snuck through another goal, somehow dinking a shot off the near post and in, having beaten half the City team.
City didn’t produce a real chance until late in the first half, but Gabriel Jesus couldn’t get his diving header from Kevin de Bruyne’s cross on target. And on the brink of halftime, when a low cross caromed off the arm holding the sliding Fred upright, neither Taylor nor VAR awarded City a penalty.
The second act saw a more threatening City as United sat deeper and absorbed pressure while eschewing risk on the break. But the hosts didn’t break through until Otamendi nodded home a corner from close range in the 85th minute. Riyad Mahrez had a gilded opportunity to equalize on the next attack, but David de Gea parried his finish well to preserve the points as United rode out the late onslaught.
This neither means that United, climbing up to fifth place, is healed, nor that City, now 14 points behind Liverpool, is collapsing imminently, even though these were United’s first consecutive wins of the league season and City has now lost as many league games as all of last campaign.
Chances are things regress to the mean next week. Because derbies are immune to the context of the rest of the season.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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