Manchester City may have won Sunday’s derby by three goals, but it’s a scoreline that far from reflected the disparity between the sides at the Etihad Stadium.
Manchester United had trailed 4-0 at half-time and 6-1 heading into the final 10 minutes, a more accurate representation of how effectively Pep Guardiola’s side bossed things.
At times in the opening 45 minutes, City’s intensity just blew United away. The hosts were relentless in their pursuit of scoring opportunities, habitually sniffing out gaps in the opposition rearguard.
City moved the ball quickly, attacked with ruthless penetration and, on the odd occasion they lost the ball, immediately won it back.
In some senses, there can be little blame attached to those in red at the Etihad - how do you live with City’s incessant approach? But Erik ten Hag’s men afforded City too much space, failed to put together any sort of passing sequences, and were too rushed in their pursuit of a chance on the breakaway.
This was so different from the recent performances against Liverpool, Southampton or Leicester City, where it was United who for long spells dictated to the opposition what sort of game it was going to be.
And yet, was that ever likely to be the case on Sunday? Was there any real expectation that United could win a battle in the middle up against Ilkay Gundogan, Bernardo Silva and Kevin De Bruyne?
It’s why questions must be asked about Ten Hag’s decision to start Christian Eriksen.
Casemiro should have started
For his part, Eriksen has been perhaps United’s most consistent performer this term and the most important factor in their upturn in form following the Brentford loss.
The Dane’s ability to manipulate proceedings has added a much-needed sense of authority to a midfield that looked so inept at times under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ralf Rangnick last term.
But Sunday was never going to provide Eriksen with an opportunity to showcase his best talents and his selection was inconsistent with a team largely designed around launching quick counter-attacks.
Dropping an in-form star is never a straightforward choice, but United would have looked more assured with the defensive robustness of Casemiro alongside the energetic Scott McTominay on Sunday.
Such a midfield set-up would have proven more difficult for City to break down, been more compact and provided United’s backline with greater protection.
Asked after the game about his decision not to start Casemiro, Ten Hag responded: “It’s not against Casemiro, it’s for Scott McTominay because he performed great in the team.”
Yet, in the dilemma about whether to start Casemiro or McTominay, Ten Hag hasn’t asked himself the most important question of all regarding his midfield composition
Ronaldo remains a problem
While the United boss may have made an error of judgement in deciding to omit Casemiro, leaving Cristiano Ronaldo out of the starting XI was undeniably the right call.
City have been exposed with pace in behind at times this season, most notably by Allan Saint-Maximin at St James’ Park in August, and selecting the front three of Antony, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho provided United with the sort of dynamism needed to cause City problems.
Admittedly it didn’t work out, but this was largely due to United’s reckless approach when in possession and an inability to provide their attacking trident with the service needed to unsettle City.
Any suggestions that Ronaldo, a player incapable of pressing, linking the play or stretching a defence, should have started are baffling.
It does raise larger issues with the five-time Ballon d’Or winner’s presence in the United squad, as highlighted post-match by Roy Keane. Ronaldo is simply not suited to Ten Hag’s style of football, and that no side were willing to sign him last summer is an indication of where the 37-year-old’s career is at.
But for spells in the second half at the Etihad, Ronaldo’s seething face appeared on TV screens with more regularity than the on-field action. The Portugal star has generated repeated unwanted headlines since Ten Hag’s appointment and a January move, if possible, seems in the best interests of everyone.