MANCHESTER, England — It has always irritated Manchester City and their supporters to be overshadowed by Manchester United and events at Old Trafford, where the two sides drew 0-0 on Saturday. Good, bad or indifferent, United’s historical might and global popularity has tended to claim the headlines, even when City have been breaking records and winning trophies under Pep Guardiola.
City’s successes in recent years have tended to be viewed through the lens of comparison to great United teams under Sir Alex Ferguson, rather than taken in isolation and credited as the outstanding achievements they have been.
But sometimes, the focus on the red side of Manchester can help deflect attention from any negative aspects over at the Etihad Stadium and Guardiola and his players have certainly benefited.United have carried the air of being a team on the brink of a crisis throughout this season.
Ole Gunnar Solakjaer’s side have suffered a humiliating 6-1 defeat at home to Tottenham, exited the Champions League at the group stage and managed only one Premier League win at home, against promoted West Brom. They have also had to deal with the agent of their highest-profile player, Paul Pogba, going public this week with claims the midfielder wants to relaunch his career elsewhere.
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Yet before kickoff — and after a dismal 90 minutes resulted in a goalless stalemate — United were ahead of City in the Premier League table. For all the talk of crisis and uncertainty over Solskjaer’s future as manager, they look down on their cross-city rivals and have lost just one of the last five games against their neighbours in all competitions.
“In my time against Manchester City that’s the best performance we have had,” Solskjaer told Sky Sports, adding: “They probably had the bigger moments in open play. Everyone should be happy with a draw.”
By their own incredibly high standards, City and Guardiola have struggled this season but shortcomings are being exposed on a regular basis and their performance against United was anaemic. They sit eighth in table, five points behind leaders Tottenham and Liverpool, and look some distance from being a genuine threat to Jurgen Klopp’s champions this time around.
One of the biggest strengths of City under Guardiola has been their peerless ability to beat teams convincingly and seemingly score at will, a reality borne out by the fact that this stalemate at United was their first 0-0 draw in the league for 79 games.
But the goals have dried up; whereas after 11 games last season, City had scored 34 goals, they have hit exactly half that figure — 17 — this time around and they rarely looked like adding to their tally against United.
Sergio Aguero’s absence with gastroenteritis did not help, but the striker has only managed 110 minutes in the league all season, so City have had plenty of time to find ways to score without him. It is a short- and long-term issue, with the 32-year-old out of contract at the end of the season. Whether he stays or goes, another proven goalscorer is needed to share the load.
Pep Guardiola’s Man City managed just two shots on target at Old Trafford. Getty
But beyond the lack of a reliable striker — Gabriel Jesus had little impact against United — City have also lost the ability to overpower teams by attacking in waves.
In the past, advancing full-backs and midfielders such as Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva, Yaya Toure and Bernardo Silva would dismantle opponents, but Toure and David Silva have left without being adequately replaced, while De Bruyne has just two league goals this season and Bernardo has none.
Phil Foden is perhaps City’s liveliest midfielder in the final third, but has only started four league games in 2020-21 and was left on the bench by Guardiola as this game meandered to its inevitable conclusion.
Although a point at Old Trafford is a respectable result for any team with ambitions of the title, this was really two dropped for City because Solskjaer’s team has displayed its vulnerability repeatedly this season, especially at home.
Crystal Palace, Tottenham and Arsenal have won against Manchester’s red half, while Chelsea emerged with a 0-0 draw. United struggled to threaten any of them, yet City played as if they were happy to come away with a point.
“We created three or four clear chances, you cannot expect many against a team like United and a good point in the end,” Guardiola told BBC Sport after the game. “It will be a good point in the future.”
Maybe United have closed the gap on their neighbours — it was such a yawning chasm that they had to do something — but City are still much stronger. However, if they cannot increase their goal output and start to win tight games, Guardiola’s men risk finishing below United for the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013.
Unlike the way things were back then, the way both teams look right now, they may end up fighting over fifth and sixth position rather first and second.