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Losing the Manchester derby was not catastrophic, but United must learn from it.

Manchester United’s loss at the Etihad was demoralizing, but it shouldn’t break a side that has already experienced so much this season.

Manchester City v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Manchester City were simply better than Manchester United, and emerged 3-1 victors to continue their unbeaten Premier League run, return to the top of the table, and claim revenge after United’s 3-2 victory in the previous edition of the Manchester derby. This is a tough blow for United’s hopes of getting back into the title race, but it is not a game that will derail their season. Last year’s loss at Old Trafford wound up being an enormous setback, starting a run of poor form over the winter schedule that decimated United’s title hopes. This year, United may not look the part of title contenders, but they’ve already had to show their resilience after a poor start to the campaign. As long as United take what they need away from this defeat there is still time to regroup and make a push for the top 4, and possibly some silverware too.

Defensive instability needs to be addressed in January

Manchester United’s defense has been an absolute disgrace this season. They’ve kept just one clean sheet through 12 matches in the Premier League, and only 3 in all competitions. They’ve conceded 21 league goals already after conceding 28 all of last season. Victor Lindelöf and Chris Smalling have been inconsistent solutions at centre back as Eric Bailly remains on the bench and Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones seem to be out with injuries still. It’s clear that reinforcements are needed, and if Ed Woodward and the United board truly want to give José Mourinho a chance to save the season they must grant him defensive transfers in the January window.

Options may be limited for non-cup tied players in UEFA competitions, but the desperation for both quality and depth at the back is serious enough to consider all options. Toby Alderweireld remains a possibility with free agency looming next summer. Matthijs de Ligt has continued his rise to stardom with Ajax as they continue to exceed expectations in the Champions League. Harry Maguire cemented his status as a top defender with England and Leicester City in 2018, and could be looking to move up.

Paul Pogba’s Impact

He may not have made the difference on Sunday, but Paul Pogba’s impact was clearly missed in the United midfield. Pogba was left out of the squad due to an injury suffered during the match against Juventus. His confidence and ability on the ball meant United would always be lacking without him, but the midfield selection resulted in the groans of many fans who are fed up with parking the bus. Marouane Fellaini, Nemanja Matić, and Ander Herrera all have their defensive specialties, but when United did manage to gain possession the midfield severely under performed. They were slow, inaccurate in the passing game, and lacked forward thinking and ability to give United attackers the chances to get back in the game.

Juan Mata is another player whose offensive impact in midfield was sorely missed to start the game. Playing him and Pogba together at the center of the park with either one of Fellaini, Matić, or Herrera should be United’s best midfield, but unfortunately Pogba’s injury could leave United without a key member of their strongest XI.

Since his world record return to the club United are 3-1 against City with Pogba and 0-2-1 without. His absence through suspension a year ago similarly hindered United’s midfield in a 2-1 loss at Old Trafford. His return should be a welcome sight to the manager and fans alike, who surely now can all see the impact he’s had at United.

Nemanja Matić is either past it, overworked, or both

It was painful watching Nemanja Matić trying to keep track of City’s swarming midfield. To his credit there was no lack of effort on the part of him or his defensive midfield partners Fellaini and Herrera, but they were overwhelmed nonetheless. They easily lost track of their men, and on each of the goals City were able to confuse and run circles around the United defense and midfield before putting the ball past a seemingly helpless David De Gea. Matić in particular had a tough time helping out Victor Lindelöf, who had enough problems on his own keeping track of Sergio Aguero.

Matić’s form has been poor for some time now. Once the best midfield anchor in the Premier League, it seems another of José’s favorites has lost the faith of fans. Nobody expected a rapid decline after a promising debut season in 2017/18, but his age and constant involvement for club and country could mean that fatigue is setting in. Like Romelu Lukaku, he’s hardly had a break since the beginning of last season. Some time on the bench could do him good, but perhaps it’s time for United to hit the market for a midfielder yet again. Either way, Herrera or Fellaini are clearly better options at the moment, and Mourinho needs to seriously consider benching one of his “untouchables.”

United can’t afford not to attack

Anthony Martial scored in his 5th straight Premier League match, taking his tally to 7 in all competitions this season. He’s been a bright spark in what is a difficult season so far for United, and that narrative continued against City. His goal came from the spot after Ederson brought down Romelu Lukaku in the area, and his confidence at the moment was evident in his execution of the penalty, but other than that there was little he could do to help United.

Mourinho’s defensive lineup meant that the midfield offered little in support of Martial, Marcus Rashford, and Jesse Lingard. The three forwards often looked isolated and helpless against a comfortable City back line, and though this isn’t the first time that has happened under Mourinho, it was uncharacteristic of the side this campaign, who normally create at least a few chances even when they lose. United looked like the side that lost 1-0 at home to Juventus a few weeks ago, a side that made almost no meaningful chances. Though in the previous two seasons José’s Reds usually managed to avoid collapsing in defense while absorbing pressure, the defense has been so poor this season that United simply can’t risk that sort of strategy against a side as prolific as City are.

Smalling and Lindelöf are not the quality defenders required to absorb waves of attacks, and United’s best positional play has arguably been their attacking midfielders and wingers/wing backs this season. As long as the ball is at their feet their defense is at less of a risk of being exposed. Mourinho needs to begin to trust his team’s attacking ability because it’s the only area where his team look impressive.