Much like Christmas, Manchester derbies have in recent years taken on especially festive feel, a sense of operatic extravaganza that begins to unfold long before the two sides take to the pitch and, as reports from the Old Trafford tunnel attest, doesn’t reach its conclusion until well after the final whistle is blown.
While the mystery of who-threw-what-at-whom may evoke memories of Cesc Fabregas splatting Sir Alex Ferguson with a slice of pizza in 2004 (toppings still unconfirmed), the ferocity with which these two tribes are now squaring up confirms that this fixture has taken on all the grandeur and griping that gave those old Man United v Arsenal games the unmistakable stamp of the Premier League’s chief prizefight. After all, it was only when Jose Mourinho turned up at Chelsea that this title, as well as the one you get for actually winning the league, began to pass from north to west London. Now, with he and Pep Guardiola installed in the northwest, their existing beef has given the game a feuding familiarity that more than makes up for the fact both are still relatively fresh to their respective thrones.
While managerial machinations may have dictated the buildup, the game itself proved that for all we wax on about philosophies and footballing blueprints, contests as close as these are as often as not decided by mistakes and happenstance. It was Ashley Young who got caught under the ball allowing Leroy Sane to sting David De Gea’s hands from a cross in the first half and the same man who then played David Silva onside from the resulting corner. It was Fabian Delph who then bellied the ball into the grateful stride of Marcus Rashford for the equaliser. These two makeshift left backs have rightfully received rapturous praise for positional transition this season, but both suddenly found themselves somewhat out of their depth on this higher stage. They weren’t alone, however, as Romelu Lukaku blasted a clearance into a crowd of players from which the ball was spat into the path of Nicholas Ottamendi. The Argentinian secured City the lead before Ederson preserved it with a splendid double save comparable to the one performed by the man at the opposite end at the Emirates last week. The surely insurmountable 11 point gap the victory opened up will give Mourinho a lot more than spilled milk to cry about. Not that he needs an excuse, mind you.
Elsewhere, United’s challengers for second provided a mixed bag of results. Chelsea capitulated against West Ham, falling behind early on and showing no signs of rectifying the situation until Eden Hazard and Alvaro Morata blazed high and wide respectively in the last 10 minutes. While the Hammers were clearly driven on by the pressures of relegation, the meekness of their opponents‘ submission was far more confounding. The only possibility I can think of is that the Chelsea forwards went on to the pitch feeling a little deflated upon hearing that Joe Hart wouldn’t be out there to provide his normal level of resistance to their best efforts. And their middling efforts. And their weak efforts.
In a kind of reverse version of the Wizard of Oz, David Moyes’ decision that he needs to get rid of his Hart opened the door for both Jordan Pickford and Jack Butland to stake their claims for the England number one spot ahead of the World Cup. Both faced daunting tasks, however, away at Liverpool and Tottenham sides eyeing up the spots United and Chelsea currently occupy.
Much like Hazard and Morata, Pickford would surely have been surprised, but instead elated, to see both Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino on the Liverpool bench. Putting Dominic Solanke upfront suggested that Jurgen Klopp had anticipated Everton would sit deep and narrow, thus inviting more aerial duels in the box, yet dropping the man most qualified to deliver those balls made little sense. Perhaps Klopp would have expected Mo Salah and Sadio Mane to perform this role, but his wingers are far more direct players, as evidenced by the way the former cut inside to score the opener and the latter chose to shoot from his left foot while three teammates waited to the right begging to played in for what was essentially an open goal.
While Pickford was able to leave Anfield with both a point and a sense of a job well done personally, his rival had a far more tumultuous afternoon. Although five is not a number that sits comfortably by any goalkeeper’s name, it was far more indicative of Stoke’s defensive effort and the efficiency of Spurs’ finishing as opposed to Butland’s performance. In fact, were it not for an equal number of fine saves, Tottenham could have hit double figures.
That being said, there was one moment where Butland may have feared for his international future. Immediately after going 2-0 down the ball was wearily worked back to the keeper, who was being rapidly closed down by Harry Kane. Realising he hadn’t the time to hoof it downfield, he attempted a rather clumsy Cruyff turn that his England teammate had already anticipated. Both men lunged desperately for the loose ball, but the advantage of being able to use his arms enabled the Stoke man to just tip the ball behind for a corner. The fact Kane then scored from said corner may make Butland’s efforts seem almost pointless but the proximity of the two chances belies the world of difference between their implications. Had Kane seized on the initial chance, Butland would have joined such luminaries as Massimo Taibi and Rob Green on the reel of those football howler compilation DVDs coming to a stocking near you this Christmas. Conceding five may be bad, but a lifetime of knowing that your calamity is being endlessly re-watched to the accompaniment of cartoon sound effects and a Danny Dyer commentary is a punishment no man deserves.