Premier League English

Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s task at Old Trafford becoming clearer now after derby

Herein are the main talking points and highlights as Man Utd faced Manchester City in the derby encounter at the Etihad Stadium.

Sir Jim Ratcliffe wasn’t lying when he said he wanted Manchester United to be the best team in the world again; to have any hope of that, they must first become the best side in their own city again.

The harsh reality is that Manchester City are still streets ahead on the pitch, and it showed on Sunday afternoon through the two styles of play that were on display.

It is true that it would have been reckless had United tried to beat City at their own game, but the fact that it is widely accepted is the underlying problem itself and evidence of just how much work will need to be done.

United embraced the underdog tag and were once again at their best when playing on the counter-attack, such are the creative limitations of their team. Erik ten Hag certainly deserves some sympathy given the injury issues he has had to cope with all season, but even when fully fit, their lack of control in matches is alarming.

In order to give them any hope, pragmatism was prioritised over positivity. Bruno Fernandes started as a false nine for only the second time in his United career, Scott McTominay was deployed in an attacking midfield role, and Marcus Rashford and Alejandro Garnacho were encouraged to move out wide and utilise their blistering pace on the counter-attack.

United would always have their best chance of winning by adopting such an approach, though it relied on a number of variables going their way if it was ever going to work.

They would have to defend resolutely throughout, take whatever opportunities came their way, and then hope that City wasted the abundance of attacks that they would inevitably have. It worked for one half; it was highly unlikely to work for two.

When you think back to all of Ten Hag’s best results as a United manager, they have been built on a similar structure. The home wins over Liverpool, Arsenal and Barcelona last season spring to mind when they sat back, absorbed pressure, and caused chaos on the counter.

Two years on, there is something Ole Gunnar Solskjaer-esque about United’s prowess on the break, particularly when they so often come unstuck against any side they are expected to dominate and breakdown through patience.

United played like a lower-league underdog in an FA Cup tie, but their hopes of qualifying for the Champions League will depend on them finding a way to break down the deep-lying opponents who try to use such a set-up against them.

Not one team has had fewer shots against Man City in a Premier League match this season than United mustered yesterday. For all the injuries and issues with the squad, the approach just fundamentally isn’t good enough.

Ten Hag can point to all those issues as much as he likes, but he can’t escape the valid scrutiny on his position and the fact that United still don’t have a clear style of play under him either.

They put up a decent fight to dig deep and last as long as they could, but by the full-time whistle, it all counted for nothing on an afternoon when City’s superiority was undeniable again.

‘The best team in all the world and the land’ plays in sky blue, not red. Ratcliffe will have to do a lot if he is ever going to change that.