When Manchester City and Liverpool met at Anfield in the Champions League quarterfinal it was difficult for United fans to pick either team to root for, but the Scousers made the decision easy by rushing ahead of Pep Guardiola’s Citizens early. Champions League consistency has been a major hurdle for City since their massive influx of oil cash, but Guardiola’s arrival and nearly unblemished League form indicated European glory may not be far away. Liverpool dealt that dream a blow, winning the tie 5-1 on aggregate. The blueprint to defeat City became clear: attack attack attack.
Back in December, when it seems the title was decided, Manchester United held their ground against City with a defensive focus. They withstood countless waves of attacks, tested their world class goalkeeper over-and-over, and inevitably lost 2-1 to the Champions elect. The most memorable moment of the game for the Reds? A quick attacking motion that sent a through ball through the lazy defending of City’s back line into the path of Marcus Rashford, who buried the chance to equalize for United.
The goal brought Old Trafford back to life like a defibrillator, but the feeling wouldn’t last long after half time. Again José Mourinho’s men sat back, and again City would take the lead, again on a set piece.
4 months later United found themselves 2-0 down at halftime at the Etihad. City could have won the title with a victory.
Then Manchester United initiated comeback mode.
Paul Pogba scored two quick goals to bring United level. The first was pure eye candy, with the ball flowing effortlessly between teammates before Herrera chested the ball into the path of the French playmaker, who had only Ederson to beat. The second goal drew lazy criticisms of “long ball” play, but there is no doubting the quality of the lofted pass Alexis Sánchez placed right onto the head of Pogba. He would do the same about 15 minutes later on a free kick to Chris Smalling to secure the eventual winner.
Mourinho and the players finally seemed to be on the same page, even if only for 45 minutes. United showed grit, determination, and passion in the memorable derby win, but the feeling didn’t last long.
A week on from a huge victory United knew they couldn’t rescue their title hopes, but figured they had at least rescued their pride until bottom of the table West Bromwich Albion crashed the 5-game league winning streak. The United lineup was reminiscent of the strategy used against Crystal Palace, a centrally based attack that stalled in the final third and lacked width and pace. United made a handful of decent chances but failed to break through, eventually losing 1-0 to the all but relegated Baggies. The Citizens were confirmed as champions.
Perhaps the derby was simply a more emotional occasion for United, but even when the Reds found their feet in attack Mourinho’s “park the bus” strategy would again take over. What may be the biggest takeaway is this: Manchester United are capable of beating City on the pitch, but their consistency over the course of a season is still lacking despite the obvious quality in the side.
Despite having the most wins in a Premier League season since Sir Alex Ferguson’s last season, Mourinho’s men still struggle with dropping games to lesser opponents. 2-3 losses and/or draws to big teams can hurt a team’s title chances, but aren’t a death sentence by any means so long as they get the job done otherwise.
This season United have losses against Chelsea, City, and Tottenham, but they also have losses against 3 bottom half teams, Huddersfield, Newcastle, and West Brom. Add bad draws against Stoke, Leicester, Burnley, and Southampton into the mix and the gap between City and United is found. 7 matches where United lost their footing against lesser sides.
21 potential points lost.
In the last three league seasons the eventual winners were the league leaders by some margin at the end of the winter period. Whichever team is able to pull away early is usually the one that finishes the job in May. United’s lack of concentration has been a persistent problem in an otherwise decent season. If they want to become champions for a 21st time they’ll need to get themselves in order early and often in 2018/19.