A decade or so ago, when Manchester City began its slow ascent, bankrolled by Abu Dhabi’s royal family, then-Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson famously dismissed them as the “noisy neighbors.”
United was still soccer royalty then, in the midst of a run of five Premier League titles in seven years, to go with three Champions League finals in four years. And City was noisy, once putting up a billboard in downtown Manchester “welcoming” Carlos Tevez to the city after poaching him from United.
By Wednesday, City was so superior to the once-untouchable Red Devils that the bookies’ odds favored them 6-to-1 to win away at United. The latter had just come off a 4-0 loss at Everton, a new nadir setting off rants from former players. There were acute concerns that the decision to make Ole Gunnar Solskjaer the full-time manager was premature.
The Norwegian is the club’s fifth manager since Ferguson retired in 2013, following a 27-year run. And if a Champions League berth isn’t pulled out of the fire in the last three matchdays, with three points and two places to make up on Chelsea, a sixth manager may well be installed over the summer.
Because after Ferguson retired, United has won merely an FA Cup, a League Cup and a Europa League. It’s been feckless in the Champions League and placed in the Premier League’s top-3 just once. It looks nowhere near ready to compete for the title for the foreseeable future. City, over that stretch, has won the league twice and reclaimed first place with the 2-0 victory on Wednesday — with all of its toughest games now played. It has reached the Champions League quarterfinals twice and the semis once. It has won four league cups, including this year’s. And it’s still in play for a domestic treble — the FA Cup final pits it against little Watford on May 18.
But City’s 11th league victory in a row, and a 15th in 16 games, didn’t just demonstrate its unrepentant superiority on the field. Although it did do that, certainly, and we should acknowledge that.
After a roaring start to the game when United pressed high and got the better of the first-half chances, most notably when Marcus Rashford dinked a Paul Pogba just wide of Ederson’s goal, City was in total control. After United failed to break through and nab an early goal, it sat deep for the rest of the game, absorbing pressure in something akin to damage control, even with the game against their cross-town rivals still tied. It was emasculating.
City hogged two-thirds of possession all night, so it was inevitable that Bernardo Silva and Leroy Sane would beat David de Gea at his near post, posing questions of the Spanish goalkeeper on at least one goal, if not both. It could have been more perhaps, had United played to win, rather than not to lose big.
The biggest thing this game showed, however, was how one club built a culture and the other allowed its ethos and spirit to crumble completely in the span of just half a decade.
You know what you’re getting from City under Pep Guardiola, just as you did under his predecessors Manuel Pellegrini and Roberto Mancini. They painstakingly built a house style that allowed the team to progress year after year, no matter who was in charge or indeed who was on the field.
United, meanwhile, is in shambles. Solskjaer started Ashley Young on the left wing, a position he hasn’t played in many years, and Matteo Darmian, who hadn’t played in months, at right back. The team was set up to defend, flying in the face of decades of club precedent. It all felt sort of random.
United’s culture left with Sir Alex Ferguson
This United team doesn’t seem to believe in anything. It was a team of possessing and attacking under Ferguson. Now it’s tactically agnostic, if not outright nihilistic in its soccer beliefs. What is United now? Does anybody at Old Trafford even know anymore?
The trouble is that Ferguson was the club culture. He did everything and he decided everything, even after he delegated the actual coaching during training sessions in his later years. And since his departure, United’s managers have been expected to fulfill that same role, to be the club. Just as Ferguson once was. This operating system is a relic from another age when managers were all-powerful – in 2019, United somehow still doesn’t have a technical director, let alone an entire team of people whose job it is to spot and sign players – never mind that this setup relies on recruiting and retaining a generational managerial talent, which isn’t exactly straightforward.
It’s made United’s transfer policy a haphazard one. The club has bought good players for the most part, hundreds of millions’ worth, but little thought was evidently given to how they’d piece into the bigger picture or fit into the locker room. Inevitably, they look like much less than the sum of their parts as a collective.
All the while, City built a structure and forged a philosophy that the manager fits into, even one who is as controlling as Guardiola. Even the ballyhooed Spaniard is, in the end, a cog, albeit a very big one, in a bigger machine. Because City does consider the details. It assesses players on footballing fit and on personality. It’s why it’s had few apparent conflicts in its locker room in recent years – if any. At United, the opposite has been true, most notably under Jose Mourinho, who was ousted midway through this campaign.
Just a few miles away, City is a club with a vision and a clear idea of how to get there. Which is why it’s now the heavy favorite for a second straight league title, and a fourth in eight years. While United has seldom felt this far from the top.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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