“You have no alternatives to beat City,” Jurgen Klopp said, having witnessed Liverpool harry, press and ultimately defeat Guardiola’s side at their own game.
“You could win the lottery, hope they tackle each other and then you can stand deep in your own box and hope nothing happens but that it is not really likely.”
Three months later, Jose Mourinho ignored that advice, bought a ticket and crossed his fingers. It could be him.
Quite incredibly, it was. The last Manchester derby on this ground famously ended with United postponing City’s coronation as champions courtesy of a second-half comeback from 2-0 down that defied logic and narrative as much as the bookmakers’ odds.
City were imperious in the first half, apparently intent on securing the most satisfying of derby victories, and an explanation for their collapse beyond a rare Paul Pogba masterclass has never been offered.
Yet given the pain and frustration of that defeat, it would be fanciful to imagine the same thing happening again. City, surely, would not allow it. Mourinho, however, set up as if they would and as if it was United’s only hope.
Some may argue Mourinho’s options were limited, with only Anthony Martial in-form among his forwards and Pogba absent through a minor injury.
Yet the selection of Nemanja Matic, Marouane Fellaini and Ander Herrera clearly telegraphed his intention to turn the 177th Manchester derby into a mudbath.
There is nothing morally or fundamentally wrong in playing reactive rather than proactive football. It is a legitimate approach, one that can often work and one which Mourinho has adopted to brilliant effect throughout his career.
Here, however, it failed. Though the final scoreline was only two goals wide, the gap between the two teams was far greater. United offered little to nothing in attacking sense and spent their Sunday chasing shadows.
City had enjoyed 88 per cent of possession, much of it deep in United’s territory, by the time of David Silva’s opening goal.
United’s cumbersome defence had struggled against City’s slick passing in those opening stage, then finally buckled when Bernardo Silva’s ball back across the face of goal was turned in.
Guardiola’s side then waned a little, as if confident they could ease up and take their foot off the gas, confident that United would not seize upon what could be described as complacency.
They were correct. Aside from a few Martial forays forward, the odd half-hearted dart in behind City’s defence, this was a reminder that Mourinho’s United too often have no semblance of an attacking structure.
Even when Martial converted from the penalty spot, halving the two-goal lead City established through Sergio Aguero’s fine strike, United had no answers.
Gifted a route back into the game by Ederson’s rash running off his line, they did not know how to use it. City dominated from thereon, restoring their two-goal advantage through an Ilkay Gundogan goal made of 44 consecutive passes.
Here was more evidence, if it was needed, that United’s brilliant result at Juventus on Wednesday night was not born of a brilliant performance, but rather of things falling neatly and in the right place.
United dropped to eighth with this defeat, remaining in the top half of the Premier League, yet the only one of those 10 teams with a negative goal difference.
It shows that, underneath the plucky wins and second-half comebacks, something is missing. This team is not succeeding but subsisting on luck, chance and fortune.
Mourinho thought the same tactics that won out here in April would work again but to win the lottery twice is too much to ask.
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