The most die-hard Manchester United fan would have feared the worst when Paul Pogba was ruled out of the derby against Manchester City through injury.
It proved a well-founded concern. Last season, Pogba was the catalyst as United came back from 2-0 down to win 3-2 at Etihad Stadium and delay their neighbours’ title celebrations. This time, with the scoreline reading the same, Pogba was seated in the stands, chewing gum with a mournful expression.
Jose Mourinho did not look dissimilar even though the champions did offer United a lifeline through Ederson’s clumsy challenge on Romelu Lukaku, which let Anthony Martial score from the penalty spot. The nerves jangled around the blue seats again. But the early damage was too great even before Ilkay Gundogan’s fine finish made the win safe. It was just as Mourinho had predicted.
On Wednesday, United came from a goal down to beat Juventus 2-1 in Turin. It was a brilliant result, and the third time this season they have come from behind to win. But Mourinho was worried.
“If we keep conceding goals before the opponent, there will arrive the day where we cannot come back,” he said on Friday. So it proved.
Just like those matches against Newcastle United, Bournemouth and Juve, United started the derby in dreadful fashion. They had barely mustered a pass, never mind an attempt on goal, by the time David Silva broke the deadlock 12 minutes in. They had been pressed, passed through and punished accordingly, the midfield three of Nemanja Matic, Marouane Fellaini and Ander Herrera incapable of the kind of control in possession Pogba can provide.
Once again, it was a goal against them that inspired some signs of life in Mourinho’s men. They began to contain City with more comfort and the passing count slowly built; a little more composure from Martial could have brought about a chance to level. But as soon as David de Gea let Sergio Aguero’s rasping drive through his hands, another comeback had slipped from their grasp.
It is difficult to level too much fresh criticism at Mourinho. With Pogba sidelined, Alexis Sanchez carrying a knock and every player presumably fatigued by the journey to and from northern Italy this week, his selection was almost made for him. There were more signs of spirit from United in the second half, especially given their opponents had scored 12 goals in their preceding two games and lost only one match since April. But the gulf in class between these teams remains as stark as last season and was never going to be bridged on Sunday, regardless of the result.
The problem is that Mourinho saw this coming and could do nothing to prevent it. He knew United would continue to start sluggishly until they were punished. He pinpointed the magnificent Silvas, David and Bernardo, as City’s chief threats, but his man-markers could barely lay a finger on them. He was likely aware starting Marcus Rashford as a lone striker could see him far too isolated and he hauled him off after 72 ineffective minutes.
United’s manager needs nobody to tell him the problems his side have, but he lacks either the tools or the tactics, or possibly both, to address them. It left them with too much to do to avoid losing the derby and dropping 12 points behind the league leaders, and too much to consider themselves anywhere near the title race.
United’s season is already starting to look a disappointment. If that is to change drastically, new players are needed to implement Mourinho’s methods, or the management needs replacing. With neither looking likely, it’s not hard to predict more trouble ahead.