The most interesting part of yesterday’s match between Manchesters United and City—it’s an insult to the proud tradition of the Manchester Derby to use that hallowed moniker when describing an early round match in the most garbage cup competition in Europe, the League Cup—came an hour before the match, when both teams submitted their lineups. It spoke volumes about where both managers and teams saw themselves in the moment, and immediately crystallized the stakes at hand: United had to win or take an enormous L.
City, like Liverpool and Tottenham and Arsenal (i.e. the other Premier League title challengers who are also competing in Europe) before them, put out a side overwhelmingly made up of reserve players. Of City’s starters, only central defender Nicolás Otamendi is a sure-fire member of the team’s ideal first XI. The rest of the team was made up of rotation options and youth products.
This reflected the team’s and manager Guardiola’s correct prioritization of all the other, actually meaningful competitions City are in, and also Guardiola’s lack of concern with his team’s shaky form that had them failing to win any of their last five matches. It may have technically have been a Manchester Derby, and the team’s poor recent results may have emboldened the critics in the British press who had been waiting in the shadows for an opportunity to hint that Guardiola is a gimmicky fraud who can’t do it in England, but Guardiola’s lineup evinced his complete assuredness in his job. Even though a loss would certainly be used against him, Guardiola had no problem more or less punting in this game and competition.
United, on the other hand, went with something very close to their regular starting XI. Only Michael Carrick and one of Luke Shaw or Marcos Rojo (depending on how Mourinho decides to reshuffle his back line after Eric Bailly’s knee injury) were real squad players; the rest of the team comprised United’s best. The contrast in mindsets here couldn’t be clearer. Mourinho desperately wanted a win here in a competition he otherwise couldn’t care less about, to re-instill in the players, the fans, and probably even himself some of the confidence that had washed away over the last month or so during United’s time of struggle.
But what this fervor for a win, coupled with City’s blatant disregard for the match, also meant was that should City’s scrubs somehow top United’s stars, then the club and Mourinho would immediately be thrust even deeper into a dark period of criticism and controversy. By admitting how much they needed a win in a relatively meaningless game, United made it so that they could not bear to lose.
Luckily for them, City really, really didn’t look like they wanted to win. One fact that has been mostly forgotten in City’s and Guardiola’s hot start to the season is how at the end of last year, when a very talented City team kept bungling their way out of Premier League title contention while simultaneously fluking into the Champions League semifinal, everyone was talking about how the City roster as then constituted did not at all look prepared to play Guardiola-style disciplined, incisive, possession soccer. A couple important transfers (John Stones, İlkay Gündoğan) and some savvy managerial moves (non-traditional formations, the reinvention of Fernandinho, playing attacking mids David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne as central midfielders) has changed all that for the first team. However, the dregs of the squad remain pretty woeful, and especially in how ill-fitting they appear to be with the coach’s playing philosophy.
Precocious teen Aleix García was the only real possession player on the pitch for City last night, and he could only do so much to get a team full of direct players and the possession black hole that is Fernando to keep the ball and pass it around neatly and swiftly. The players didn’t look like they knew what to do for most of the game, and though they did create a couple decent chances, they put together a terrible 90 minutes.
Though Guardiola obviously didn’t care too much about the result going into the match, the way the team played and the lack of useful, well-suited depth players outside of the attack has to concern him. He also deserves some criticism for letting it get this bad by buying a bunch of new attackers in the summer and completely ignoring the depth they needed in midfield and the two new starters they could’ve used at both full back positions.
Even so, for at least the first half United didn’t look all that much like the vastly more talented team. Both teams looked flat and disjointed in the first 45. United gave away possession too easily, ruined promising attacks with poorly hit passes, and didn’t make much happen in attack. If the game had continued that way, it wouldn’t have been a surprise at all had Man City stolen the win with a lucky goal and thus wreaked total havoc on United’s season.
Mourinho must have reminded his players at half time that the stakes here were either win or look like a bunch of idiots who might get him fired. Whatever went on United were much improved in the second half, and wound up getting the win they needed through a well-worked Juan Mata goal.
City will have gone home not all that worried about losing what in most any other circumstances would’ve been a massive match against their biggest rivals. They lost and didn’t look very good while doing so, and the way they played showed how thin their depth is at some key positions, and some of the dummies in the English soccer world will use the fairly meaningless six-matches-without-a-win stat against the manager, but this was, after all, just the League Cup. It was literally the least important game of their season.
United will be happy that they got the win, but the emotion will probably be closer to relief over how they narrowly evaded a calamitous loss rather than joy. Sure, they beat a group wearing the jerseys of Man City, the team that put their down stretch of form in motion with a win in the real Derby match in league play, and maybe Mourinho learned that playing Mata, Ander Herrera, Carrick, and Paul Pogba (and Pogba thrived when given the freedom to roam in a three-man midfield, the same way he did in the same circumstances at Juventus) together would in fact maximize the talents of his most gifted player. But still. This was, after all, just the League Cup. The only thing keeping it from being the least important game of their season was their own insistence that it not be.