We have not been here often with this Manchester City team but we have been here nevertheless.
It was last August in Lisbon when Pep Guardiola’s side faced Lyon in the quarter-final of the Champions League. It was a one-off game on neutral territory because of the Covid-19 pandemic and City flunked it so badly that the 3-1 defeat they suffered on the night was not remotely misrepresentative of the way the game had gone.
Guardiola, the City manager, looked a little shattered afterwards. It takes a lot to puncture Guardiola’s self-belief but the armour took some damage that night in Portugal and it has taken some time and some football to properly move on.
The derby defeat came at a bad time for Pep Guardiola (above) and Manchester City
So this defeat to Manchester United – particularly in its meekness – feels badly timed. City had won their previous 21 games. Their football in recent weeks has been imperious.
But this was a malfunction of the machine startlingly similar to the one suffered against Lyon. It was a reminder of what can happen.
This season’s Champions League is up and running again after its winter break. City are midway through a two-leg tie against Borussia Monchengladbach and have a two goal lead. They are as good as in the last eight already.
Beyond that, though, Guardiola will know that tougher opponents await but so do opportunities. Barcelona – much diminished these days – are on their way out. Liverpool are all over the place. Sunday’s opponents are already out.
Manchester City midfielder Kevin de Bruyne struggled to impose himself on the game
So a route to their first ever Champions League could become available. They need to avoid catastrophe. They need to avoid a day like this.
As well United played, City were not recognisable.
Kevin de Bruyne did not find a sky blue shirt with a pass for the first 20 minutes. Raheem Sterling played as though somebody had moved the goals. Gabriel Jesus once again reminded us that he is not the heir apparent to Sergio Aguero.
As City chased the game – nominally at least – Aguero himself was not invited to leave the substitutes’ bench.
The margins were fine. They usually are when City lose. Without their early penalty, United would have nothing to hang on to. City came close to an equaliser several times, hitting the bar just a moment or two before United broke on to them to score the decisive second.
But having said all that, City had none of the conviction required to plot a way back in to the game. Too much of their play seemed chaotic and instinctive. Where was the game plan? What was it? Was there one?
Raheem Sterling failed to take advantage of his chances against Manchester United
Back on that night in Lisbon last summer, Guardiola did not help himself with his team selection and formation. Here in Manchester, his substitutions lacked urgency and, strangely, courage.
With 25 minutes left, he replaced one full back – the out of sorts Joao Cancelo – with another, Kyle Walker. Five minutes later, Phil Foden replaced Jesus. Aguero remained seated as did Bernardo Silva.
If Guardiola was not going to deploy his match winners when he really needed them then he may as well have asked them to stay at home.
Jesus conceded a penalty in the first minute and things didn’t improve much after that. The Brazilian is a trier and will have better afternoons but he will only ever bring this team so much.
He is only 23-years-old but is approaching the end of his fifth season at the club. He was bought as the replacement for Aguero but will not be if as expected the Argentinean leaves his summer. This was one of those days when City’s need for a new centre forward this summer was clear.
Guardiola has assembled and drilled such an intelligent group of footballers that they have shown themselves able to thrive and prosper in the absence of a prolific number nine. City’s top scorer this season is the midfielder Ilkay Gundogan with eleven. That is extraordinary for a side that has been threatening to turn the Premier League title contest in to a procession and something that Guardiola knows he cannot afford to take in to next season.
Striker Sergio Aguero himself was not invited to leave the substitutes’ bench on Sunday
Sometimes you just need your centre forward don’t you? Sometimes you need that focus, someone to drive you forward straight through the middle. There was a moment midway through the second half – during a period when a goal for the home team would have lit a fire under the whole game – when Jesus was played through down the right. He was not clear on goal, he had company in red.
But the chance to take a touch and get a shot away was definitely here. It was a moment for someone like Aguero at his peak or Harry Kane. Jesus never did get that shot away and that fire remained unlit.
So City continued trying to build a way round and through. They sought to make small spaces bigger. They are good at it but here the chances – two to Sterling late on for example – were not taken. United goalkeeper Dean Henderson played well but did not make an outstanding save.
United deserved their victory. It will be interesting to see if they build on it. They were good enough here to make you wonder why are not better more often.
City win the league and deserve it. Europe will present a sterner challenge.