There was a moment in the second half when Pep Guardiola paused in the midst of whatever torment grips him during matches and threw his arm around Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, to bring to an end to the disagreement he had picked with one of football’s mildest managers.
The Manchester City manager could see his Premier League title defence slipping away and there was nothing he could do this time, although even he would struggle to ignore the nerve and fluency with which the old rivals played at times. This was a magnificent derby won unexpectedly by a young Manchester United team that took a two-goal first half lead and just about clung onto it, against a City side who knew the consequences of defeat only too well.
They are now 14 points behind the leaders Liverpool and even now, in early December, City must wonder if this, indeed, was the day that the title was lost. There was nothing unusual about the way that Guardiola’s team dominated, and how they peppered United, especially in the closing stages after the substitute Nicolas Otamendi had scored with five minutes remaining. But something is missing from a team that spent the previous two seasons virtually unbeatable.
They were skewered on a marvellous counter-attacking performance from United who scored early through Marcus Rashford’s penalty and then minutes later through Anthony Martial before they fought their way through the final hour of the game. Perhaps Solskjaer will look back on his first back-to-back league wins since March as the turning point of his reign. In the VIP seats Sir Alex Ferguson applauded a great United win: brave, scrappy at times, and achieved by a young team with a point to prove.
For the likes of Daniel James, Scott McTominay and Aaron Wan-Bissaka this was a breakthrough game, when they showed what could be done. This is not the great City side of the last two years but it still takes a monumental effort to beat them.
A vintage first half for United, in which they played on the counter-attack with the confidence of a side that had spotted a weakness in their old rivals and just needed to press in the right places. They were a goal to the good on 20 minutes and then they hit City with the second three minutes later when there were six blue shirts in the home area and not one could stop Martial turning and shooting.
There will not be many passing moves as fluid as those United put together in the first 30 minutes, and they should have had more than just two. Rashford clipped the bar four minutes after the second goal. At left-back Angelino was exposed by the pace of Daniel James who did just a handful of things in the first half, all of which seemed to matter.
On the left side United had Rashford cutting in on his right into the channel between Kyle Walker and John Stones. United were at their best in these moments when they wasted no time. Just a minute after the first goal they went up the pitch in three passes – James, Jesse Lingard, Fred and then Rashford hitting the shot first time when he might have taken another touch. But that was the mood of United in that short period when it felt for them like anything was possible.
The video assistant referee Michael Oliver had given United their penalty which Anthony Taylor had inexplicably missed on 20 minutes. Bernardo Silva came in from Rashford’s left as the striker slipped through the penalty area traffic and there was barely any thought given to taking the ball cleanly. Bernardo’s right leg struck Rashford’s left and down he went. When play was eventually stopped it was an easy decision. Rashford had treatment before he sent Ederson, arms flapping on the line, the wrong way from the spot. It was Rashford’s 13th goal in 14 games for club and country.
Both Lingard and Martial had forced saves out of the Brazilian goalkeeper by then. United’s front four was by far the most influential of the two attacks. Two minutes later Martial and James, outnumbered in the City area, conjured something out of nothing: an exchange of passes and the Frenchman spun and struck a shot beyond Ederson’s left hand and in off the post.
City looked flat-footed. The usual methods were not working. On the left wing Raheem Sterling and Aaron Wan-Bissaka were in a struggle for supremacy and although he was not having it all his own way, it was the United man who came out on top before the break. In the last 15 minutes of the first half, City looked more dangerous as United stopped pressing the ball so effectively and the counterattacks faded. City had a good appeal for a handball against Fred when he blocked Walker’s cross in time added on before the break but the VAR review decided against the penalty.
The official VAR verdict delivered by the Premier League on the Fred incident was that it did meet the criteria for a handball when a player is falling, as the midfielder was. It is not handball, according to the laws of the game, when “the hand/arm is between the body and the ground to support the body”.