EPL

De Bruyne masterclass instigates Man Utd humiliation as City emphatically remain on course

By Sports Desk March 06, 2022

It was deemed a pivotal match in the title race. Liverpool would have been able to go top of the Premier League table – or at least within a point of it – with a win in their game in hand if Manchester City slipped up in the Manchester derby.

But upon its conclusion at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday, it was difficult to imagine Liverpool players doing anything but lifting their jaws off the floor after City blew Manchester United away in stunning fashion, beating Ralf Rangnick's side 4-1.

Not that it always looked likely to be so one-sided. A Cristiano Ronaldo-less United certainly made things interesting at the start, and the absence of the Portuguese forward – due to a hip injury – gave them an enigmatic aura, to some degree.

It emerged on Saturday night that Ronaldo was a doubt when reports began to suggest the Portugal captain had not been present with the rest of the squad at their team hotel.

City would surely have been preparing to face Ronaldo all week, and so United's set-up will have come as something of a shock – even more so when in the early exchanges it looked like the visitors were attempting to go punch-for-punch with the champions, something few teams survive.

In fact, early on there were signs of role reversal. United had spells of possession, City were playing for counters. Under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, counter-attacking became something of a staple for the Red Devils in these fixtures.

But in the absence of Ronaldo, it was as if United were finally playing with a full complement of players, such has been his lack of influence outside the penalty area – you could potentially include inside the area as well given his recent wastefulness.

With Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba supporting wide forwards Jadon Sancho and Anthony Elanga, United looked fluid, intricate and generally dangerous in attack, almost mimicking City's striker-less style for 2021-22, the hosts' fifth-minute opener from Kevin De Bruyne not appearing to upset the away side's flow a great deal.

Jadon Sancho's excellent equaliser showed precisely what United were capable of, as they cut through City and the England international exhibited great composure by skipping around Rodri and curling into the bottom-right corner.

Though by that point, in the 22nd minute, City had already started to get to grips with United's slightly surprising set-up, as Rangnick's men started to show cracks.

In the first 15 minutes, the share of possession was almost 50/50 – over the course of a derby during Pep Guardiola's time in Manchester, United haven't had more than 40 per cent at the Etihad Stadium. But over the following third of the first half, City's share increased to 72.5 per cent, and it was unsurprising to see them regain the lead through De Bruyne just six minutes after Sancho's leveller.

If United were trying to mimic City, the latter were proving themselves to be the real deal.

Pep Guardiola seemingly targeted Aaron Wan-Bissaka – or United's right flank in general – as the weak link, with the right-back struggling to cope as Joao Cancelo, Jack Grealish and Bernardo Silva – even Phil Foden too at times – ganged up on him. City's first two goals originated from that area of the pitch and, in truth, even more could have.

United reached the break just one goal behind, and given their promising start and the open nature of the first period, there was reason to believe a way back wasn't out of the question.

But City were on a different planet after half-time.

Their control of the ball found another level, as did their cohesion when pressing, with United having immense difficulty passing through the City midfield.

Pogba faded into anonymity, Fernandes and Sancho too, while Grealish galloped with joy and De Bruyne ran the show, out-crafting and out-muscling his counterparts at almost every opportunity.

Adding to his brace, the Belgian also played the inch-perfect corner delivery that led to Riyad Mahrez's gorgeous half-volleyed third, which most would have accepted was game over for United. Though fans would have hoped the players weren't of the same opinion.

Yet the response to that 68th-minute goal was non-existent. City had 87 per cent of the ball between the 76th minute and full-time as United just seemed to throw in the towel – the concession of a late fourth to Mahrez was a just punishment for their reaction.

City's performance was a timely and fitting reminder that their superiority cannot be simply copied and pasted.

Rangnick said on Friday that City are an example because every decision in the club revolves around certain ideals and a joint-up philosophical approach to football – the second half on Sunday embodied that as they played United off the park playing the ferocious football they are known for.

Before this weekend, United had been reduced to the role of prospective party-poopers – it's a damning indictment of where they are now that even this was evidently way beyond their capacity.

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