Manchester United sent a statement of intent to the rest of the Premier League with a dramatic win over Manchester City.
A local derby already rich in sub-plots delivered plenty of drama, particularly in the second half when Jack Grealish’s opener was overturned by Bruno Fernandes’ controversial equalizer and then Marcus Rashford’s close-range winner.
Our experts analyze the main talking points.
Why Man United’s equalizer was allowed to stand
The biggest controversy at Old Trafford revolved around United’s 78th-minute equalizer.
Why was Bruno Fernandes’ goal cleared against Manchester City?
Casemiro’s pass over the top looked destined for Marcus Rashford’s searing run, but the striker was clearly in an offside position when the ball was played.
However, Rashford never touched the ball as it fell in his way; instead, he allowed Bruno Fernandes to strike home.
Fernandes celebrated and immediately protested his case to the assistant referee, and Scott McTominay – who was preparing for the substitution – raised his arms in protest on the touchline.
So was it the right decision? Casemiro’s pass was surely intended for Rashford’s offside, but the Englishman’s choice not to touch the ball allowed the game to continue and Fernandes’ goal to stand.
Although Rashford did not touch the ball as the assistant referee initially thought, there is an argument that he was so close to the ball and the City players that he was interfering with play. Rashford’s run did protected the ball from at least one defender and created a situation where Ederson could not get off his line to recover Casemiro’s pass.
But former Premier League referee Peter Walton on BT Sport said he did not believe Rashford was interfering with play, and officials eventually agreed. City, it’s fair to say, didn’t.
The city falls into bad habits
After Bruno Fernandes equalised, Pep Guardiola was spotted pointing his temple on the touchline. He reminded his players that despite all the controversy surrounding the goal, they now had to stay focused.
Four minutes later they were behind. It’s a familiar pattern, one that City supporters have come to know during Guardiola’s time. Despite all the unprecedented success, there are short, snappy moments where it all comes crashing down on itself.
Think of the three goals in six minutes in the Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid last year. The two in three minutes against Tottenham in the 2019 quarter-final. The three against nine against in a defeat at Anfield in 2018, which ended the eventual Centurions’ long unbeaten record.
Before Fernandes’ leveler, City were dominant and on the rise, but have had to learn the hard way over the years that they are almost never safe.
This may be part of the reason behind Guardiola’s push for a greater sense of tactical control, which caused such debate around his selections and arguably contributed to a lukewarm and unimaginative first half.
And yet, despite this push for control, City are still capable of suddenly and irrevocably losing it.
Rashford on fire
That’s six goals in six games for Rashford, who is arguably the Premier League’s in-form player – a transformation for someone whose future was openly debated in Manchester (and far beyond) last season.
The 25-year-old had a strange first half, unable to convert two decent chances before collapsing with what appeared to be a hip or leg problem. He persisted in the second half to eventually switch to centre-forward after a brief experience with Antony up front.
In the end, he had his say in how this dramatic game ended, with his goal and offside ‘interference’ being proof of equalizing his counter-attacking threat. But there are also new tools in his game. His left foot has improved, as have his heading and passing.
His teammates trust him more with the ball and he plays with such confidence that he doesn’t take an extra touch to steady himself for shots if he trusts himself to test the keeper early.
Fernandes ended the game with the man of the match award, but his embrace with full-time Rashford showed who the talismanic figure is in this United side at the start of 2023.
Grealish’s Big Bittersweet Moment
Jack Grealish doesn’t score much. He never did, really. The most expensive personal best player in Premier League history for a single season is a grand total of 10 in the 2019-20 campaign for Aston Villa.
So Grealish’s harshest critics have always had one clear and obvious deficit in his game to point out: a lack of end product.
To build his defence, his fiercest supporters have always had to delve into the field of more advanced statistics: progressive carrying of the ball, touches of the penalty area, etc. This is not such a convincing argument.
But what could be more convincing than a goal in a Manchester derby, arguably the biggest of Grealish City’s career to date? For the second Premier League game, and once again at a ‘Big Six’ club, his introduction had a tangible impact, although ultimately Grealish left Old Trafford as frustrated as any of his team-mates.
Still, Grealish’s last five appearances have brought one goal and three assists. Not bad for a £100m player with a lack of end product.
Unflashy Fred brings stability
United’s line-up may have raised some eyebrows, with Fred joining Casemiro in the midfield pivot while Fernandes went wide on the right and Christian Eriksen started as the 10. But that prompted an out-of-possession performance from United who have ranked among their best in recent seasons.
Eriksen’s job was to follow Rodri closely and prevent City from building easily at the back, while Fred followed De Bruyne like a shadow. The Brazilian’s energy and appetite for a loose ball saw him past De Bruyne – there were two standout chances in the opening 20 minutes that sent the Old Trafford crowd screaming – and his left foot brought a balance to United’s passes from behind that Ten Hag often craves.
Fernandes and Rashford then followed City’s wide men with an intensity and depth United fail to always manage in big games.
It compressed the air in City’s midfield and left Pep Guardiola’s side flat: a contrast to the game between the sides earlier this season when United trailed 4-0 at half-time.
So what changed in the second half? Anthony Martial’s injury meant United no longer had a focal point for when they won the ball. And while the legs were tired, De Bruyme found more pockets of space on both sides of midfield.
Fred’s lockdown job couldn’t last forever, and the introduction of Jack Grealish, allied to a move to Rashford that seemed to embarrass the England international, meant there were more runners for United to follow from midfield. ground. City duly took control for a while, until United’s late comeback regained momentum.
Haaland forced hard… to no avail
If you were to predict where this Manchester derby would be won and lost based on squad sheets alone, the prospect of Erling Haaland lining up against left centre-back Luke Shaw seemed the most likely.
Except it never really happened. Instead, Haaland was often seen falling deeper than we’re used to, with the vast majority of his first-half touches coming closer to the halfway line than the 18-yard box.
If the idea was to bring him more into the game, it didn’t work. Haaland spent so much time uninvolved in the play that he presumably took over the chants of “Keano, Keano” sent over from Old Trafford.
It was perhaps the compromise that Guardiola felt he had to make: to play the “destabilizers” everyone wants to see but change Haaland’s role to maintain an element of control.
It was another tactical micro-adjustment among many seen at City recently and one that didn’t pay off, and it took Guardiola half-time to sort it out. In the second half, Haaland pushed further and City were able to exert more control, until the crazy final minutes at least.
Misery for Martial
Anthony Martial was a late inclusion in Ten Hag’s starting XI, having done enough to convince medical staff and United management that he had overcome a late problem with his leg on Friday to make the squad.
The 27-year-old (admit it, you thought he was younger) had a strange first half against City, and certainly didn’t look in top form. In the first 10 minutes he failed to do his best to stay on for a possible counter-attack and then, shortly after, he failed to stop Ederson when the City keeper had to face to a clumsy backpass. Throughout, his running pace was somewhere between a painful jog and sprint.
Martial’s first touch, passing intelligence and return-to-goal play make him essential to Ten Hag’s attacking plans, but the United manager has admitted the striker cannot handle the ‘physical load’ of three 90-minute performances in one week and he was replaced. by Antony at halftime.
It was an unfortunate moment for the French striker, given that new signing Wout Weghorst was at Old Trafford on Saturday. There must be a good chance that the Dutchman will play more Premier League games than Martial at the end of the season.
(Top photo: Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)
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