Once again, the Carabao Cup serves as a show of Manchester City’s deeper power, and a semi-final a show of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s deeper flaws. The competition’s holders – and apparent modern owners – here re-asserted their superiority over their derby rivals.
This 2-0 defeat felt like a slight reality check that has been coming for some time for Manchester United. So many of their recent games could have gone either way, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side here came up against a team only going one way: drastic improvement.
City look a team picking up pace, having shown why they could be on a run of four successive League Cups. If Pep Guardiola has become a specialist in this competition, Solskjaer has become a specialist in semi-final defeats. This was his own four-in-a-row in that regard.
It reflects a flakiness that still must be fixed, but often seems at the core of this United side.
The fact former manager Jose Mourinho manages the other finalists in Tottenham Hotspur is symbolic, because the Norwegian’s constant failure in the last four would be accused in other quarters of being “Spursy”.
This is why there has been some reservations about their admittedly fine run of late. There is still the sense they are a momentum team, always reliant on confidence as much as the coaching.
This may be why another slightly concerning trend has arisen this season. They have struggled in games against the rest of the big six. United have only taken two draws from five such fixtures so far this season.
They have the chance to rectify that against Liverpool next week, but that match suddenly doesn’t seem quite as significant as it might have been, precisely because of City’s resurgence. This was another big-game win for them, following on from the statement victory over Chelsea on Sunday. It was also a performance that did those commemorative Colin Bell shirts proud.
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Are they developing into the team that can just go on a run that wins the league this season? The 2020/21 campaign has had a habit of making predictions look foolish, particularly after supposedly decisive victories, but what felt particularly impressive about this was actually how controlled City were.
It was a different type of superiority. It wasn’t one-off bombast, like Liverpool’s 7-0 win over Crystal Palace. It indeed suggested something deeper.
City were compact, commanding, and just capable of keeping United at arm’s length. John Stones’ own resurgence was symbolic of that. Ruben Dias complements him well at the back so both look solid in defence, and he again produced in attack – if somewhat fortuitously. It was still the consequence of City’s general play.
By contrast, it is somewhat damning that Solskjaer’s side only managed two shots on target against a stand-in goalkeeper in Zack Steffen. Anthony Martial’s desperate fall in the second half might also be seen as someway symbolic, given how many recent United games have genuinely been decided by spot-kicks. They didn’t get one this time.
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The defeat also emphasised something else that remains a concern. That is how singularly dependent United still are on Bruno Fernandes.
He is still responsible for basically all of their playmaking. If he is not on form, and he really wasn’t here, United are rarely on song. They too often looked to him, to produce little more than long shots, which were emblematic of the attacking performance in itself.
It is a genuine difference between the teams. While United remain reliant on individual pieces of inspiration, City play in a more collective manner, the visible product of Guardiola's coaching.
This isn’t to write Solskjaer’s side off – especially not this season – but there is at least the danger that Fernandes and Marcus Rashford could burn out a bit. That has been a trend of Solskjaer’s tenure so far. Why not give Donny van de Beek more of a role in such a game?
It was still ultimately a game between one good team and one very good team, decided by fine margins like a lucky bounce and a supremely executed Fernandinho volley – but that’s kind of the point.
When you start to get to these stages, that’s what tells. There’s ample evidence on both sides there. Guardiola knows this too well. It’s why he’s on the brink of another trophy, and fourth successive League Cup.
Solskjaer is still very much learning. It’s why he still hasn’t won a trophy at United, and has suffered a fourth successive semi-final elimination.
City just showed their greater power as a team.
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