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It was a game that neither team deserved to win. Manchester United and Manchester City both had chances to turn Saturday’s derby in their favor, but a 0-0 draw was the most just outcome. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Pep Guardiola both tried to put a positive spin on events after the game, but this match showcased the deficiencies of their teams. On this evidence, both United and City will struggle to achieve their objectives this season.
This result probably favored the hosts more than the visitors. United had won only one of their previous six league games at Old Trafford, a run which included defeats by Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur. They also came into the derby on the back of a 3-2 loss to RB Leipzig on Tuesday that dumped them out of the Champions League before the knockout stage.
What is more, Saturday’s stalemate means United are now unbeaten in their last five top-flight encounters. They have taken 13 points from the last 15 on offer and are still in touch with the top of the table, despite being down in eighth place. Solskjaer may also argue that this display was proof that his team has become more resolute at the back, although recent performances against West Ham United, Southampton, and Leipzig would suggest otherwise.
Yet while United was far from awful on Saturday, they did not do enough to win the game. City was subdued and looked there for the taking, but United could not muster enough in the way of coordinated attacking soccer to push for the victory. Solskjaer has now been in charge of the club for almost two years and we are no closer to knowing how he wants his team to play.
It was a point Gary Neville made after the game. Solskjaer’s United tend to thrive when they are able to play on the counter-attack and go into a match as underdogs. They have had some impressive victories over other big sides – including Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City, and Chelsea – in 2020, but often follow one step forward with two steps back.
The former United captain told Sky Sports:
I think Ole has to start dominating games. In the last 12 months, where Manchester United has won games it has been through two forms of tactics. It’s either been counter-attack or it has been in moments – Southampton and West Ham, in recent weeks. They aren’t what you would really call performances, driving the other team into the ground. They are playing in moments. In the next six to eight months, they have to dominate matches and dominate big games. That will be the determining factor for Ole.
Indeed, Solskjaer is adept at producing reactive, one-off game plans for meetings with sides who will look to dominate the ball. But he has yet to prove that he can forge a more positive identity at Old Trafford, in the manner that Jurgen Klopp and Guardiola have done at Liverpool and City respectively. When United have to take the initiative, they often look short of ideas.
Ordinarily, a counter-attacking approach would be the most suitable for a game against City. But with Guardiola’s side playing more cautiously this term than in previous seasons, United should have done more when they had the ball on Saturday. They had a higher-than-anticipated 46.2 percent of possession, yet there were few discernible signs of the type of attacking patterns that the best teams in the world showcase on a weekly basis.
United’s off-the-cuff attacking play can at times result in some excellent flourishes given the quality of the individuals at their disposal, but it is unlikely to be enough for them to win the Premier League title in the modern era.
When Manchester City lost 5-2 at home to Leicester City in late September, it looked as if their title challenge would be derailed by their defensive deficiencies. Since then City has been one of the most solid sides in the division, keeping five clean sheets and conceding only five goals in nine league games. Instead, their problems have come at the other end of the field.
City was blunt upfront on Saturday, and that has been a common theme this term. They have scored only 17 goals in their 11 outings, a tally bettered by West Ham United, Everton, Southampton, and Aston Villa among others. The injured Sergio Aguero has been a big loss, but City seems to be playing within themselves and struggled to get out of second gear at Old Trafford. That is a concern.
It seems an unthinkable thing to say about a team managed by Guardiola, but City looks short of imagination and guile right now. At times in recent weeks, it has seemed as if their best hope is giving the ball to Kevin De Bruyne and waiting for him to make something happen. City played with surprisingly little urgency on Saturday against a United side still licking its wounds from midweek.
There is still time for United and City to put things right. The table remains extremely congested, and a run of victories would make everything look rosier. United have a relatively favorable run of fixtures coming up, while City’s performances in the Champions League show that they can still turn it on in attack.
Guardiola’s side are second-favorites to win the Premier League with DraftKings Sportsbook, which offers +210 on them finishing top. United, meanwhile, are available at +130 to finish in the top four, which puts them behind Liverpool, City, Tottenham, and Chelsea in the rankings.
Prizes are not handed out in December and no one will remember underwhelming performances like Saturday’s derby if United and City go on to achieve their objectives this term. Right now, though, both teams are short of where they should be. Solskjaer and Guardiola have plenty of work to do.
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Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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