MANCHESTER, England — It was a glimpse into so much wrong at Manchester City, and into Manuel Pellegrini’s mind-set now, as Manchester United again gave one of those infrequent shows of what might have been this season. Sunday’s 1-0 win at the Etihad at least restores life to their campaign but City just look like they’re sleepwalking, even if that perceived lack of energy finally roused their manager to anger.
After Pellegrini’s team failed to find a response to United’s renewed focus, the Chilean struggled when responding to very relevant questions about his management. The City boss was asked whether he still has authority over a lost-looking squad given Pep Guardiola’s summer arrival and about their conspicuously low points haul. But he didn’t give answers. He merely got angry, insisting that his postmatch news conference was only to cover the game…even though this game summed up so much of City’s season.
“You have the right to ask what you want,” Pellegrini responded. “I have the right to answer what I want.” If only his players had shown such abrasiveness.
The match was decided by something simple: United won because they were energetic and concentrating enough to competently do all their jobs. That is something that cannot be said about almost any of Pellegrini’s players, especially the hapless Martin Demichelis, who had what must have been one of the worst individual performances in the Premier League era.
Yes, it was that bad, as illustrated by the fact that Pellegrini felt the need to take him off after just 53 minutes. Prior to that, Demichelis had been humiliated by Marcus Rashford for the game’s only goal after 16 minutes. He should also have been punished for a penalty for fouling the same player just before half-time, and then he inadvertently got Joe Hart injured with an awful back-pass just after the break. It was chaos; Demichelis did nothing right.
When asked why he put Demichelis out of his misery by taking him off so early, Pellegrini remarkably responded: “I think he was nervous.” It was an astonishing thing to say about a veteran near the end of a career that has involved World Cup and Champions League finals, but then so much about this derby (and these teams’ seasons) was rather head-scratching.
Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of all is how City could end the game like this after spending so much and at one point looking so strong in this campaign: with so many of their attacks ending at the inaccurate feet of Jesus Navas. In that regard, Demichelis was merely the worst of a series of poor performers.
His replacement, Wilfried Bony, did nothing other than repeatedly mis-kick shots, Yaya Toure and David Silva were bizarrely ineffective, and Sergio Aguero had an off-day missing two big chances. There was one moment toward the end of the game when the Argentine had the ball near the United goal but rather than square to one of the other attackers, he tried to take on two defenders. It was as if he just didn’t trust them; then again, it would be hard to blame him.
City’s last few minutes were so meek that you would never have guessed that they were 1-0 down in a notionally fierce derby that could feasibly have relaunched their title challenge. You would have guessed, however, that this was a match between two under-performing wealthy clubs far lower than they should be in the table and who are set to change managers.
Sunday’s win moves United to within a point of fourth-placed City in the table, but also raises other points about Louis Van Gaal’s own reign. Just like it is so confusing that City can be this bad and lifeless, it is just as head-scratching how United can so suddenly look like the respectable force they should be. Under Van Gaal, there has been such a bizarre inconsistency to their performances. The United boss always seems to pull out a result or an encouraging display when things look dire. A little like Arsene Wenger, in that sense.
Just three days have passed since they themselves looked so lifeless and flat against Liverpool in the Europa League, only for them to then turn it on with another big win. Van Gaal has many faults but it is hard to criticise his big-game record in the league.
The derby actually saw some of the Dutch coach’s best ideas on display: a regimented discipline that still allowed for some creativity, particularly through Anthony Martial and Rashford, who both looked so threatening every time the ball went near them. City generally struggled to get near Jesse Lingard and the effectiveness of his energy in midfield set a tone for the game. Morgan Schneiderlin was supreme alongside him, while Daley Blind and Chris Smalling were brilliantly polished at the back.
The question is obvious: Why don’t we see that constructive discipline more often? Why does the performance level of the team oscillate so much? That is just another head-scratching issue, but then the same applies to many of Van Gaal’s decisions.
It was impossible not to notice that the team looked so much more fluent with Schneiderlin in the side rather than Marouane Fellaini but when asked about the French midfielder’s fine display, the manager’s response was every bit as baffling as everything else.
“I don’t have to say that too loud because the last time I said I am very happy for Morgan Schneiderlin, after that he played not so well.” Again, head-scratching. There was nothing so about the fact United won, though. They just did everything so much more competently than City.
Pellegrini seems to have lost command of his squad, even if it is on a subconscious level with the knowledge Guardiola is coming, and they thereby lost the game. If they’re not careful, they could lose a Champions League spot, too. As for United, they at least finally looked like a side worthy of the elite competition again.