The first ever Manchester derby outside the United Kingdom. Houston provided the setting for this pre-season friendly, and an attendance of nearly 67,500 resulted in the generation of a carnival atmosphere at the NRG Stadium. Granted, there was nothing riding on this fixture in terms of points. Yet, when it comes to the rivalry between Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola, there has been no love lost. The general expectation surrounding the game was that there would not be any quarter given, and that is how it panned out.
Baulking the trend of casual and non-competitive friendly matches, the game had a frantic beginning. Both teams seemed up for facing the challenge that was to be presented by their local rivals. United got the better of the opening exchanges, with City’s new goalkeeping acquisition Ederson tested twice in the opening 10 minutes. Ander Herrera was his usual self, buzzing with energy and trying to link the play, attempting to find Romelu Lukaku at every presentable opportunity. Vincent Kompany’s importance was clearly highlighted, with his timely interceptions and organization the silver lining in a rather shaky defence for Guardiola’s side.
The Red Devils certainly looked sharper in terms of the passing combinations being established by the front four, as well as winning the crucial midfield battles on the individual front. City responded through a lively and rejuvenated Raheem Sterling, with the young Englishman testing David De Gea after cutting in from the left using his trickery. However, the performance of the man who forced De Gea into his next save would have pleased Guardiola the most. Phil Foden, a 17-year-old homegrown player, was extremely impressive, with his movement, ball control and ability to find space and fashion chances. It was fairly equal in terms of possession and half chances that the two teams created, until the 37th minute.
A long ball was floated down the left and City’s new signing Kyle Walker, the most expensive defender in history, was nowhere to be seen. Ederson made an inexplicably shocking decision to try and beat an onrushing Lukaku to the ball, with the new United hitman managing to win the race and maintain enough composure to finish from an acute angle. This could do wonders for the Belgian’s confidence, and his celebration reflected what it meant to him. Even before Pep could consider what needed to be done in order to re-establish a foothold in the game, Marcus Rashford doubled United’s lead. Exploiting the weakness in City’s full-back positions, he managed to get in behind their makeshift left-back, Fernandinho. One-on-one with Ederson, albeit at an angle, he showed the clinical finishing abilities which have resulted in his meteoric rise.
Mourinho could not have written a better script. A two goal advantage at the interval, with his recent claims that Lukaku and Rashford could operate successfully as a partnership showing signs of bearing fruit. The pair now have five goals between them already, and the early indications suggest that this combination could be the answer to United’s goalscoring problems from last season. With the likes of Martial, Mkhitaryan, Mata, and Lingard to supplement them and the impending arrival of Ivan Perisic, if negotiations with Inter Milan can be finalized, United fans cannot be blamed for getting excited at their prospects in the forward positions. As for this particular game, both teams made 9 changes over the course of the second half and the Red Devils managed to see out the contest with professionalism and more importantly, retaining a clean sheet.
From City’s perspective, it was a game to forget. Barring the aforementioned performances from Foden and Sterling, there was not much to cheer. Guardiola was raving about Foden and how he was unfazed by the occasion. On the basis of the teenager’s display, it comes as no surprise that the manager sang his praises. In context, the fact that the likes of Aguero and De Bruyne were not as efficient in attack could be concerning, though the immediate defence of it being just a pre-season friendly could also be considered.
All in all, in terms of not only the result but also the performance, Mourinho would be the happier of the two managers. Especially pleasing would be the fact that the partnership between Lukaku and Rashford seems to be blossoming, Pogba and Herrera are bossing the midfield and Lindelof is settling in well into the defence. There are still gaps to be filled, with Mourinho publicly stating that they need to sign at least one more player. With respect to City, this defeat will not raise too many alarms, yet certain signs cannot be ignored. The glaring gaps in defense, especially in the full-back areas, were extremely evident. Guardiola admitted in the post-match conference that they need to sign two or three more defenders. Judging by what was witnessed in the derby, the arrival of at least a couple of players to strengthen that area can be expected.
There will be more important games to be played before the season commences and both teams will want to try and experiment with personnel and tactics. If something can be predicted with a fair degree of surety, it is the fact that these two teams will form a major part of the title challenge in the upcoming season.