Pep Guardiola has revived the spirit of Barcelona to boost City’s title chances | Manchester City

MManchester City, brilliant but strangely vulnerable; Manchester United, a mess but with a strange spark. In the end it was a Manchester derby that confirmed what we already knew. And the result is that the title race continues to Anfield on Sunday, setting up a potentially seismic clash between City and Liverpool after four consecutive league wins.

At this point Arsenal will have played Brentford at the Emirates next Saturday. There are two things to say about this: firstly, that there are still 10 games left after next weekend and the top spot hasn’t been this close at this point since 2010 (when Chelsea led United by one point after 28 games), Arsenal two further back). And secondly, if this is to be a classic run-in, the top teams will have to give up unexpected points so that there are surprising twists and turns and not the kind of winning streak by the main rivals that characterized 2018. 19.

United, meanwhile, are six points adrift of fifth place and even though they were ahead at half-time, the gap between them and City is wide. Given their injuries, it may not be entirely fair to judge them on this one game, but it is reasonable to ask why more generally, as they had more playing time than Unai Emery at Aston Villa or Ange Postecoglou at Tottenham, and a lot more money , Erik ten Hag was much less successful in forging a team with a coherent structure and identity. Recruitment has been poor in the past and he deserves due sympathy for that, but he is also the one who looked at Antony and saw a £90m footballer.

Ten Hag’s formation was a return to the days of Ole Gunnar Solskjær, with a midfield diamond split with forwards, which made sense: the Norwegian’s record against City, against all major teams, was comparatively good; He found it difficult to construct attacks against teams who were far behind against United. Using the pace of Marcus Rashford and Alejandro Garnacho against a City defense line that has scored more goals from quick counterattacks than any other Premier League side other than Crystal Palace this season was probably the way United could approach City .

To the extent that it led to the opening goal – a majestic long pass from André Onana, Bruno Fernandes played the role of scorer with unexpected aplomb and Rashford fired a shot into the top corner – it worked. But after that, Rashford was terrible, while United’s unfamiliarity with the form was evident in their hesitation. Gradually they were forced deeper and deeper, unable to get out, unable to mount the counter-attack that might have threatened a second or stemmed the tide of the city.

City might not have equalized until the 56th minute or taken the lead as late as the 80th, but there was never really a feeling that United would get away with it.

It was two moments of brilliance from Phil Foden that decided the game, but with him in exceptional form, plus Erling Haaland and Kevin De Bruyne, you always get the feeling that not only is he a relentless machine, but teams are also using their pressing and their performance overpowers control of possession, City have the people who can turn games around.

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In that sense, they resemble, at least in spirit, a little more Pep Guardiola’s early Barcelona than some of the teams they won the title with at City. There is also a feeling that they may not have quite as much control as previous versions due to the increasing tendency to play straight to Haaland, which adds a new dimension to their attacking play. Guardiola once said that after regaining possession, his teams would need 15 passes to prepare for the counterattack; This layer of protection has seemingly been lost as they have become more threatening in the transition, making them vulnerable to rapid breakage.

And that perhaps explains the feeling over the last few months that, although City have won 15 of their last 16 games, they are not quite at their best, that they are not quite as intimidatingly ruthless as in previous seasons. It was also noted that the game plan was unusually gentle. On Sunday they played for the first time since their defeat to Villa three months ago against a team that was in the Premier League’s top eight at the start of the day.

The derby would be the start of a tough month that would shape their season. Maybe it will be, but United are really no match for City at the moment. Liverpool, Arsenal and Villa will pose far tougher challenges over the next four weeks.

  • This is an excerpt from Soccer with Jonathan Wilson, a weekly look from the Guardian US at football in Europe and beyond. Subscribe here for free. Do you have a question for Jonathan? Email [email protected] and he will provide the best answer in a future edition

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