As the dust settles on Manchester United’s stunning three-goal comeback against arch adversaries Manchester City, much will be made of City’s collapse and Pep Guardiola’s inability to affect the game tactically from the sidelines. However, for his opposite number – Jose Mourinho – yesterday’s exercise in glorious escapology could prove a catalyst for a change, a move away from tedious, mundane conservatism.
City were exceptional in the first-half. Without Kevin De Bruyne, rested for Tuesday’s crunch Champions League tie with Liverpool, the blues wielded superiority in breath-taking fashion. Captain Vincent Kompany thumped home a powerful header, Ilkay Gündogan adding a second with an intelligent turn and finish. Two goals in five first-half minutes had the story of the day written, Guardiola’s men were to be crowned Premier League against their derby rivals.
In truth, City should have compounded United’s misery and wrapped up a third title in seven years. An outclassed United remained in contention after Raheem Sterling skied two golden opportunities with the goal at his mercy and an unmarked Gündogan headed straight at keeper David de Gea from just eight yards out.
“The first half was terrible, we dropped off didn’t play our game, and could have been out of sight,” United captain Chris Smalling told Sky Sports.
“At half-time, we were feeling sorry for ourselves, we wanted to go out there and play with pride and thought we fully deserved it in the end,” the defender added.
In the second-half United’s Portuguese supremo, desperate for his side not to be the “clowns” in City’s title coronation, abandoned his usual conservative mindset - or, rather, his players did. Alexis Sanchez re-emerged with greater tenacity, purpose, and speed in forward areas, while Paul Pogba finally looked worthy of the £89 million fee that prized him away from Turin.
The blitz started in the 53rd minute. Sanchez picked out Herrera, who expertly chested the ball past Kompany and Pogba ghosted in to stroke the ball into the net. Before City could settle, United were level. Alexis lofting a clinical through-ball for Pogba, who again drifted into the six-yard area and guided an elementary header into the net.
Just 97 seconds separated Pogba’s two goals. The 25-year-old’s driving midfield display was proof of the sublime world-class levels of performance the Frenchman can reach when liberated from his manager’s defensive shackles.
“Manchester United are a far better team with Paul Pogba in it. He brings arrogance, confidence and belief,” explained Gary Neville.
An unlikely comeback was complete when Smalling, who was carelessly at fault for Kompany's goal, arrived unmarked to drive Sanchez's free-kick past an exposed Ederson in the 69th minute.
Pogba and Sanchez, two of the Premier League’s more elegant operators, ultimately proved their class in United red yesterday. They showed that when they are afforded the opportunity to do what they do best - attack with flair, pace, and freedom - United are a far stronger outfit.
Hopefully for United fans, yesterday’s momentous result marks a much-needed modification to Mourinho’s stale approach. A vital step away from the gritty, dogged, defensive rigidity deployed against top sides, which, rightly or wrongly, defines him.