Soccer is becoming more intricate, with concepts like half-spaces, passing lanes, pressing tactics, and probabilities, but there are still some basic principles that hold true. For instance, when facing the top striker in the world, you should not allow him a free header at the back post. And if you were lucky enough to get away with it right before half-time, you definitely shouldn’t give him an even simpler opportunity right after the break.
The team Manchester United may express dissatisfaction with a questionable penalty call and consider the potential outcome if Rasmus Højlund or Scott McTominay had converted one of their opportunities in the first half. However, what should truly concern them is that they were defeated by a typically careless Manchester City due to their own lack of precision. This marks their 34th loss at Old Trafford in the past 10 years since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, equaling the number of defeats they experienced in over 20 years under his leadership.
In the first half, during injury time, Bernardo Silva passed the ball to Erling Haaland on the City left side. Despite Victor Lindelöf being nearby, Haaland was able to easily head the ball towards the goal. However, André Onana made a heroic save by flying across and redirecting the ball away from the goal.
The instruction was present, but it was disregarded. Four minutes after the pause, Silva once again found himself unmarked. He sent the ball to the back post, but this time Lindelöf had been pulled away while following Phil Foden. Rodri had lifted Jonny Evans off the ball, leaving Haaland with no one within five yards of him.
This is not the first instance this season where United has allowed a peculiar goal, but this one was even more perplexing than Mauro Icardi’s goal for Galatasaray. It’s possible that in the closing minutes of the game, when players are fatigued, someone could find so much open space, but for Haaland to do so just after half-time, only 10 yards from the goal? It appears that United’s defensive organization is seriously flawed.
In January, when United defeated City at Old Trafford, there was a feeling that something was changing under Erik ten Hag. It seemed that the balance of power had shifted enough that City would have to fight for dominance. Now, nine months later, United is in disarray. While three consecutive wins may have given the impression of resilience, the reality is that if a top-six team needs last-minute heroics to defeat teams like Brentford, Sheffield United, and Copenhagen, they are not in a position to challenge this strong City team. A victory would have brought United within three points, but instead, the gap has widened to nine points and continues to grow.
However, the opportunity was present. This season, City has not performed at their highest level. In the first half, they lost possession in dangerous areas and were in danger of being defeated by basic long passes. Despite scoring twice and having a total of 11 goals in the league this season, Haaland seemed frustrated. It was not similar to City’s 2-0 victory at Old Trafford two seasons ago, where they dominated United from the start. If United had been more ruthless and had better control and quality, they could have put pressure on City. However, this was not the case and in the second half, City excelled while United struggled.
Critics have often pointed out that Manchester United’s team lacks cohesion, which can be attributed to the fact that it was assembled by several different managers. However, there are now concerns that even the players brought in by current manager Ten Hag are not making a significant impact. Young player Højlund showed enthusiasm on the field, but at just 20 years old, he has yet to score a goal in the Premier League. Antony was only subbed in during the 86th minute and his only noteworthy moment was a frustrated swipe at Jérémy Doku. Christian Eriksen struggled against Silva in the first half and then let Rodri pass by him too easily in the lead-up to City’s third goal. Sofyan Amrabat, who was substituted at half-time, could be seen as another temporary solution brought in to fill a gap. Mason Mount, who came on at half-time, only touched the ball 14 times and never posed a real threat. Additionally, defender Evans is 35 years old.
Towards the conclusion, United’s focus and control had dissipated. It wasn’t only Antony intentionally annoying their adversaries, but it conveyed the overall inefficiency of United when Bruno Fernandes arrived late to make a tackle on John Stones and ended up needing to be treated for an injured ankle.
The organization is no longer present, morale is declining, and the slight optimism from last season’s third-place finish is fading away. There is some potential for improvement with Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s investment, but it will be a difficult and time-consuming process to restructure football operations. United is fortunate to have wealth as a safety net during this time, as they currently have no other advantages. City easily defeated them without needing to play at their best.