Manchester City’s 21 game winning streak is over, as United extended their own unbeaten run on the road in the league to 22 matches thanks to goals from Bruno Fernandes and Luke Shaw.
United were deserved winners; rewarded for ambition, defensively organised and once again indicating that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer might have a much rosier future than the last four weeks have suggested.
Rashford and Martial raced proactively at the City defence; Martial took control of the ball and the home defenders seemed almost too frightened to tackle. Gabriel Jesus, however, is not a defender, and his clumsy attempt to get the ball ended with a hack on Martial’s calf. There were less than 40 seconds on the clock.
There was no doubt of this penalty – and Fernandes scored it. In the fourth minute, Luke Shaw had a glorious chance to make it two, but could only get his right foot on it and fired straight at Ederson.
City’s response was to dominate possession and territories; they did just that, but other than a handful of Gundogan efforts that never unduly ruffled Henderson, didn’t ever cause extreme panic. United, for their part, had a couple of good opportunities on the break, but couldn’t quite be as clinical as they have been on occasions here in the past.
City came out with intent to equalise quickly; Rodri’s effort clipped the bar early on. As the hosts pressed, they appealed loudly at Henderson’s delay holding the ball – the goalkeeper promptly launched a long throw to Shaw, whose first touch was exceptional in beating Cancelo, who enjoyed such high plaudits before the game people were saying he had revolutionised the full-back position. Shaw played the ball to Rashford, who laid it back – from the edge of the box, Shaw chanced an effort at goal, and it rolled smartly into the corner.
This was no timid rearguard action – United were confident and ambitious, with Martial enjoying one of his best games for the club. He should have scored with 22 minutes to go when the referee played advantage after a foul on McTominay, but Ederson did well. If Rashford or James had matched that quality in key areas, United’s win would have been even more handsome.
United’s remarkable run of wins at the Etihad continues, and in a strange way, Solskjaer surprised no-one with the victory and his players surprised no-one with the performance – it only further emphasises the frustration of the past few games when you know what United are capable of.
But you never know – this could yet prove to be influential on United’s future prospects if their players understand the rewards that are on offer for this kind of commitment and urgency.
There was some criticism about the line-up – for Bailly to be dropped again, for James to be starting, for Martial to be leading the line.
But let’s be blunt – the players at the club who were there before Solskjaer were not high achievers. They underperformed under one, or two, or three managers. The highest level they have achieved has been that which has been achieved under Solskjaer.
As frustrating as those selections might seem to you or I, and no matter how obvious it is about the ceiling of some of these players, this is partly caused by the squad he inherited and the constraints he has had to work with in the two years he’s been in the role.
You could argue that he should have prioritised areas of the squad differently when exercising his need to be ruthless but look at how it panned out – Sanchez needed to be offloaded. Lukaku wanted to be, and wasn’t good enough anyway, no matter how much he does at Inter. Sometimes matters like these have an impact on how you are able to handle priorities.
It doesn’t make Solskjaer blameless. Today, Lindelof was very good – save for two lapses of concentration. Martial was magnificent, in one of his better games for the club, the sort of performance that makes you wonder where that player has been for most of the season.
But these are precisely the problems facing Solskjaer – without wanting to be negative after such a strong result and performance.
He should know that over the course of a season, Lindelof isn’t good enough, that Martial simply can’t lead the line. The manager takes a percentage of the blame for the issues and if the problems are still there going into his third full season then he is going to be the person who takes the majority of the blame. It’s easier to sympathise when you see what the players are capable of. But that is as true for the bad as it is for the good.
The secondary argument is if he is getting the best out of what he has and a percentage of that discussion includes his tactical approach. Solskjaer’s first few months were illuminated by his invention, playing a three man defence, or a split forward line with a false forward. He built on that in his second year with Luke Shaw often playing as a ‘false’ centre-back. And this season he seems to have stuck rigidly, with only a couple of changes that have felt ill-timed and unnecessary when they did happen.
The 4-2-3-1 is becoming predictable and because of that, Fernandes is sometimes being marked out of games.
Still, the formation has been the one to get results against City in recent times so one can understand why Solskjaer went for it. It’s tried and tested – and he deserves so much credit for being able to match, and better, Guardiola as frequently as he has. More importantly – in recent victories, like today, United have thoroughly deserved those wins.
United’s powers that be should be taking this seriously because Jurgen Klopp’s early years at Liverpool were highlighted by the performances against City with the question being ‘what can they achieve if they can do this every week’.
His issue isn’t necessarily whether it works against City, like it has done before, and like it did today. It is that the league, with this squad, is a horses for courses scenario, and that Solskjaer seems to think his horses are good for every course. They’re not. Today isn’t the proof of that – but the gap between the sides, and United’s position in a poor league, is. If United can build on this with a convincing run to the end of the season, that might well go some way to answering more doubts than this result will.
— United Goals ⚽️ (@UnitedGoals__) March 7, 2021
— United Goals ⚽️ (@UnitedGoals__) March 7, 2021