The first half 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 then a mere 45 minutes away from winning the Premier League against their eternal enemy in front of their own home fans. Those same loyalists who had waited decades and decades for this moment. And then, out came an entirely different Manchester United side to the one that went into the tunnel at half-time and determined to write their own climax to the story…
Three goals scored, three steps forward
United completed a remarkable turnaround to score 3 goals and deliver a strong blow to City’s morale. Coming as it did 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. Mainly 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 the hosts when it was least expected.
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—at least from a Manchester United perspective—the result and the performance was all about the future and how this can spur the club 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 rumored 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 Pogba’s manager 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 of his goals showed a glimpse of how lethal that partnership could be in the future in a fluid 4-3-3 setup.
Pogba’s two-goal performance at the Etihad which fueled United’s rally, may ultimately end up being the defining moment for the player and his team under Mourinho. All doubts should now be removed as to whether the Portuguese is the right man to lead this club forward. It could well be the turning point for him on a personal level as he finally played the role of the talisman as he was always expected to in one of those critical situations 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; he relentlessly hassled City when they were in possession in their own half. His assists for the second and third goal showed his quality and the eye for a pass that he’s always had in his game in on top of his ability to score goals on his own.
Alexis’ 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 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 improved since the lackluster tail-end of 2016/17 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 at the same pace. 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, the club’s record against the top six has been quite 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 it. No doubt that is of great important for Mourinnho after the great disappointment of the unexpected end to their Champions League run.
With the right additions in the summer, United should be challenging for the Premier League this time next year, no longer as spoilers but very much in the thick of the action.