MANCHESTER, England — In this wildest of Premier League seasons, another unexpected twist. Manchester United’s 2-0 derby win extended their record unbeaten away in the Premier League ended Manchester City’s winning streak, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s players will rue the 11-point gap that remains between themselves and Pep Guardiola’s league leaders.
A second-minute Bruno Fernandes penalty, followed by Luke Shaw’s goal five minutes into the second half, gave United victory in the 185th meeting between the two sides and no success in this fixture can be dismissed as insignificant. Indeed, snapping City’s run of wins in all competitions at 21, as well as making it 22 in the league without defeat away from Old Trafford, adds more merit to United’s display.
But while Solskjaer and his players will celebrate, the result will also serve as a reminder of what might have been this season and, going forward, underline the importance of giving the team a fighting chance of competing with City for an entire season, rather than merely over an isolated 90 minutes.
Because despite this defeat — their fourth at home to United in the past six league campaigns — City will cruise to the title this season. With 10 games to play, Guardiola’s team will not surrender a double-digit point lead and allow United to become champions for the first time since 2013.
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United were top of the table in mid-January, but have allowed City to take charge of the because of inconsistency that has led to dropped points against strugglers such as Sheffield United and West Brom, as well as failures to beat rivals in top six.
United’s performance in this game was outstanding, with Solskjaer selecting the right team and tactics to win all three points, but it came four days after a dismal 0-0 draw at Crystal Palace, which followed another grim stalemate at Chelsea.
But they are 12 points better off at this stage of the season than this time a year ago, so there are positives to counterbalance the negatives. Moreover, United’s success in ending City’s incredible run proves that Solskjaer has the club on the right track.
“We’re a much better team than we were 12-18 months ago,” Solskjaer said. “But they [Manchester City] are so far ahead that you can’t really think about anything but making sure we win our games and be better than last year.”
Earlier this week, following the release of the club’s quarterly accounts, United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward said that “the progress made by Ole and the players this season is clear.” Woodward is right, but this win at City brought his comments into sharp focus by showing what more must be done.
For all the progress, Woodward needs to urge United’s owners, the Glazer family, to capitalise on the upward momentum by investing in the squad this summer to make the team competitive in every game next season and diminish the prospect of peaks and troughs that can undermine a title push.
From 1-11, they can beat any team — City joined the likes of Paris Saint-Germain and RB Leipzig as victims of United at their best — but the lack of depth and quality at Solskjaer’s disposal has also led to defeats against those same three teams, as well as a costly 2-1 loss at home to Sheffield United in January.
Woodward only needed to look at the respective substitute benches on Sunday to understand why City have been able to rotate players and remain fresh enough to win 21 on the bounce and, in doing so, move so far clear at the top.
The hosts had Sergio Aguero, Kyle Walker, Aymeric Laporte, Bernardo Silva, Ferran Torres, Benjamin Mendy, Fernandinho and Phil Foden to call upon. United, meanwhile, had Eric Bailly, Nemanja Matic and Alex Telles, plus four homegrown youngsters and Amad Diallo, the teenager who arrived from Atalanta in January.
On this day, the imbalance did not impact upon United, but the lack of depth over a season denies the chance to keep players fresh and vary options. Fernandes, Marcus Rashford and Harry Maguire have all made more than 40 appearances in all competitions — Rashford limped away from this encounter with a suspected injury — whereas nobody in City’s squad has broken the 40-game mark.
The small details matter. Fatigue is a factor in United’s poor recent results and so, if they are to challenge for the title next season, more quality is needed in all departments. For example, while five clean sheets in the last six games in all competitions is a sign of becoming a solid team defensively, a reliable goalscorer would be transformative.
Anthony Martial’s second-half miss, when he shot straight at Ederson instead of making it 3-0, highlighted a lack of ruthlessness in the forward line. Martial, Rashford, Mason Greenwood and the injured Edinson Cavani have just 36 goals between them this season; if Erling Haaland, Harry Kane or Robert Lewandowski was in the squad, many of those draws and defeats could have been turned into victories.
But Solskjaer can only get the best out of what he has and, with United second in the table, he is doing that. Beating City is a big statement by this team, but now it is up to the Glazers to make sure the opportunity to build and strengthen is not wasted.
If they do step up, United can challenge City throughout next season. But without reinforcements, victories like this will ultimately count for nothing.