At the top, it is a game of small margins. Winning or losing hinge on the smallest details when there is ultra-competition, and so it was at the Manchester derby. A couple of selection errors, sluggishness to match the intensity of the City aggressors, and the game was over within 44 minutes. United supporters will not be overly worried though, neither will the Red Devils boss. Mourinho spotted the issues quickly and adjusted, it was just too late as Pep, a ferocious tactician, reshuffled the deck immediately after United finally got it right. Guardiola certainly has the edge, and it showed on the day. He has been frosty ice cold when it comes to making decisions about his teams, freezing out anybody that doesn’t fit in his ethos and systems. Yaya Toure, Pablo Zabaleta, and Joe Hart - all former City juggernauts who have been seen off the pasture so Pep’s ultimate system can take hold. This is the same manager that is so hated by Zlatan Ibrahimović because he exiled the imposing Swede to the wings at Barcelona, even though Zlatan was a good goal contributor, on the say so of a certain Lionel Messi. That is cold, that is a lot of edge. Mourinho needs to show the same edge.
Mourinho on the other hand has made concessions, none more visible than the placement of the most expensive footballer on the planet, Paul 'back-in-the-building' Pogba. It is an open secret that the young French midfield maestro is at the height of his powers while powering forward on the left side of a three-man midfield. When his defensive duties are shaved, the magic of Pogba is at its strongest ebb and flow. The same way Fernandinho’s industry keeps De Bruyne free to do what he does best.The current two-man pivot the new United boss is currently adopting is essentially a compromise. United undoubtedly have the resources to staff a three-man midfield, however this would cancel out the No. 10 role that Rooney currently occupies or as José would call it 9 and a half.
Paul Pogba being marshaled by Fernandinho, Pogba had a bad day at the office. Photograph: Tom Purslow/Getty Images
Henrikh Mkhitaryan also failed to hit the heights on his first start for the devils. Photograph: Getty Images
Jesse Lingard and Henrikh Mkhitaryan were both deployed to surprise the enemy, create width with pace and expand the cone of play. They turned out to be duds, and maybe that was a gamble Jose should not have taken in light of the gravity of the derby. However, as I said, small margins – Zlatan with his normal Zlatan shooting boots would have seen United through the rough patches. He had 3 very clear opportunities to bring the devils back from the brink, a tepid header from a delightful Rooney cross fell right into the floundering hands of Bravo. A lack of situational awareness also saw Ibrahimović shoot hurriedly and weakly after Bravo had vacated his posts to mix it up with Stones after another delightful Wayne Rooney cross (hint hint). Mourinho was aggrieved by a non-call from Mark Clattenberg, after Bravo who had an uninspiring debut, went studs first into the United skipper after losing control of the ball in the City penalty box. City could have still won, it could have easily been a draw, or United could have caught second wind and rode their ascendency – small margins.
" I think in the first half they were much better than us. We started the game bad, with some players really below the normal level, in terms of concentration, mental availability to play a game of this speed. "You need to be sharp, the way you think and play, we had a few players below the level, and the team paid for it."– José Mourinho
The United boss will not see many games this season in which there is a perfect storm of starters performing well below of what they are capable of, Blind had an bad first half, Pogba and Fellaini robotically kept their shape instead of responding to real time events on the field, one of the two should have disengaged from the pivot to confront Kevin De Bruyne who had the freedom of Old Trafford. To be fair, United should not have been using that formation and Mourinho adjusted at half time bringing on the versatile Herrera to sit in front of the back four. It was just too late, Pep closed the barn door with Fernando and withdrew Iheanacho who scored the fortuitous winner on the day. José’s surprise should have been the fearless teenage sensation Marcus Rashford, who has been riding a comet since he flashed across our screens last season.
Zlatan Ibrahimović mustered the only response to City's early dominance. Photograph: Clive Brunskill/Getty images
Kevin De Bruyne was given space to operate and he punished the United backline. Photograph: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Again the United faithful will not be discouraged by the events that unfolded, a missed opportunity at best. I was taken by surprise at the power of this team Mourinho is building, how with a flick of a switch they were able to re-impose themselves. City did very well by resisting the steel United brought on, however not many teams in this league will. It looks like Guardiola might be further down in his calculus, but Mourinho’s equation is a tad bit easier to balance especially if he is brave enough to cast reputations aside and make brave adjustments. It was the first battle in a long war and City will not always have a referee as soft as Mr. Clattenberg was on the day. Exciting times ahead in Manchester, first blood drawn by the sharper edge – game on.