The move lasted exactly two minutes. When Manchester City scored for the final time that afternoon, lifting them to a 3-1 win over rivals Manchester United, the move to get them there featured a wondrous and uninterrupted sequence of possession. This was not a mere goal; this was a short film directed by Pep Guardiola.
Fittingly, given his stellar performance all afternoon, its main actor was David Silva.
Silva is 32 years old, a stage of career by which most footballers have become shadows if not parodies of their former selves. Sunday was not the first time Silva had been the dominant force in a game between these two teams; his other masterpiece had come in City’s 6-1 humiliation of United at Old Trafford. Yet there he was, seven years later, still at the peak of his art, ushering his teammates left and right.
Just as United had seemed about to mount an unlikely resurgence, Silva and his colleagues flicked the ball almost playfully between them, each touch a thoughtful brushstroke against the Etihad’s canvas. By the time Ilkay Gundogan caressed the ball beyond David De Gea, City had completed 44 passes, the contrast with their opponents now absolute. City were the thrilling motion picture, United the fading still life.
Of course, this has been a week of great controversy for City, with many questioning the ethics of their rise to footballing prominence. The recent series of revelations by German newspaper Der Spiegel deserves scrutiny for a long while yet. In the meantime, United should reflect on why, as one of the world’s wealthiest clubs, they did not present greater on-field resistance. As City worked the ball across the pitch, United’s players set off in forlorn and mostly lonely pursuit, never anticipating where their rivals would shift it next. Most worryingly for them, they were comprehensively outthought.
When this goal is analysed time and again over the years, it will be noted just how rarely the ball leaves the ground; only twice in those two minutes, when Silva switches the play and when Bernardo drives it into the area for Gundogan to finish, does it rise through the air. What’s striking about this strategy is how it nullified United’s aerial threat, with Jose Mourinho having chosen the physically imposing Nemanja Matic and Marouane Fellaini to go up against City’s diminutive midfielders. Guardiola’s approach could thus be described as “when they go high, we go low.”
What will also remain striking is how often City pass the ball between two United players: this is a team that takes risks, seeking out and then thriving in the most guarded of areas. There’s the sheer speed with which the ball travels, frequently driven with the force of a confident-spot kick. There’s the moment when John Stones, desperately chased toward his own goal by Romelu Lukaku, swerves this way and then that, a getaway driver elegantly losing the tail.
Most impressive of all, though, will be the movement exemplified by Silva. The Spaniard features in the gripping sequence throughout, wandering to either flank, drifting to the edge of United’s area and scurrying back towards his own half. He never really sprints, but he is always vigilant, his head constantly turning to assess where to go next.
Mourinho remarked after the game that “people who don’t understand football analyse stats. I don’t go for stats.” That is just as well. In tactical terms, the most glaring difference between the two clubs is in midfield. United arguably have just two midfielders on their playing staff whose chief skill is to control the tempo of a football match, and neither of them — Juan Mata, who was on the bench, or Paul Pogba, who was ruled out through injury — were in United’s starting line-up. Meanwhile City — in the shape of Silva, Gundogan, Bernardo, Phil Foden and Kevin De Bruyne, the latter also injured — have five.
As long as a gap of that nature remains, United can expect several more such chastening occasions.
In August 2011, after a fiercely fought 3-2 win by United over City in the Community Shield, Wayne Rooney remarked that his team had handed out “a footballing lesson.” Rooney was in bullish mood, and rightly so: United’s second goal in that game, just as City’s third goal was on Sunday, was a sumptuous summary of his team at its best, a bewildering blend of speed, skill and invention.
“This shows who the best team is,” he said. “All game we dominated… We never know when a game is finished, we took them apart. The scoreline is deserved. We’re champions, and we’re the team to beat.” Rooney was right, and were Guardiola or Silva to speak those words now, they would be equally true of City today.
In that sequence of two minutes, we saw Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City fully realized. Were there an Academy Awards for defining football moments, that goal would have won a clean sweep.