One of the many sub-plots of the latest Manchester derby was the battle between the two No. 9s at either end of the pitch.
In the red of United, Anthony Martial, and wearing City blue, Gabriel Jesus. Both started the game but both are probably not first-choice to lead the line of their respective clubs at the moment.
Martial started due to Edinson Cavani’s latest injury setback, while Jesus has been City’s main man this season due to Sergio Aguero’s ongoing fitness issues. Both have had their chances to establish themselves as long-term solutions on either side of the Greater Manchester divide, but neither have made an irresistible case.
Both were replaced at the Etihad, but Martial wore the tired half-smile of a man pleased with his afternoon’s work when he sat down on the bench, while Jesus trudged disconsolately around the pitch after a frustrating day.
Martial’s fine performance was as unexpected as it was impressive. He played with the vigour and confidence that has been lacking during a run of two goals – both against Southampton – in 16 appearances.
The fact is both clubs will be in the market for a centre forward over the next two summer transfer windows. City’s need is more pressing, certainly on yesterday’s evidence, when Jesus floundered and Sergio Aguero, out of contract in the summer, was an unused substitute.
United could trigger the one-year extension in Cavani’s contract, buying themselves another year for finances to recover post-pandemic, and focusing on other priorities this summer. But the question should be whether now is the time to grasp the nettle.
On his quarterly investors call on Thursday Ed Woodward spoke of the progress made under Solskjaer and the conviction United were heading in the right direction under the Norwegian. That sounds more persuasive after a third win over Pep Guardiola’s City at the Etihad in 15 months than it did on the back of three successive goalless draws.
There was also caution over the financial impact of the pandemic. While United’s financial performance has stood up relatively well, the loss of matchday revenue, in particular, for more than 12 months will impact on the summer transfer window.
But now might be the time to back Solskjaer above and beyond. This team has made progress under his stewardship. A third successive away win at the Etihad is undeniable proof of that and this time it was a complete performance. We’ve seen United can match any team in the league over 90 minutes, but to win the title they need the depth of resources to do it over 38 games.
That’s where City have the edge now and the only way that gap will close is by spending money on strengthening the squad.
In terms of major first-team additions United probably require a centre back, right-winger and centre forward, as well as added depth at right-back and maybe in midfield. Solving all of those issues might be beyond them this summer, but an aggressive approach to solving at least two of those three problems might push them on another level and towards a more sustained title challenge.
That has to be the ultimate aim. Presuming United don’t somehow close the 11-point gap to City, this will be an eighth year without the Premier League title. That run needs to end soon.
But to usurp City over a full season you need a level of consistency that is beyond most teams. To win the league anytime soon United will probably need to win somewhere above 30, maybe even 32, of their 38 Premier League games. Doing it over 90 minutes at the Etihad is a sign of progress, but they have to be winning at Crystal Palace and West Brom as well to finish top come May.
Then there is the threat of City themselves strenghtening. They look like a team moving on from the Aguero era and Jesus’ chance to become his long-term heir has passed. A striker will surely be top of their shopping list this summer.
Perhaps this all boils down to Erling Haaland. A penny for his thoughts if he tuned in on Sunday to see his former Molde manager Solskjaer engineer another major win.
Haaland was in the goals himself on Saturday, but he would have been frustrated that his double away at Bayern Munich still came in a losing cause. Borussia Dortmund could drop into the Europa League next season and even at 20 it’s hard to see Haaland hanging around for that. He belongs on the biggest stage.
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Manchester United secured a memorable 2-0 derby victory over Man City at the Etihad Stadium.
Bruno Fernandes and Luke Shaw scored the goals to clinch an unexpected, but empathic, victory for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s troops against the league leaders.
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If the Norwegian is on the move this summer, a year ahead of when his release clause kicks in, the question is not whether United can afford to sign him, but whether they can afford not to, or at least to try.
That City were able to reel off 21 successive wins without a consistent contribution from a world-class No.9 is mightily impressive. Add Haaland into that team and they go up another level.
Yet the same is true of United. They could go into next season with Martial and Cavani, who has recently turned 34, but if they could use the Solskjaer connection and the lure of Old Trafford to sign Haaland, it solves a problem position for the long-term and undoubtedly adds goals to the team, an issue at times this season.
In one-off games United have proved again and again that they can live with the best over 90 minutes. But a season lasts 38 games and that consistency of excellence remains their shortcoming. These players may have another level to go to, but the most likely solution is further investment in the squad. Solskaer’s latest storming of the Etihad suggests he’s earned that this summer.