Was this the day the title was won, after a moment that saw Manchester City lose their composure, and thereby the game?
An impressively full-blooded Manchester United were still full value for a 2-1 derby victory that now leaves the champions 14 points behind Liverpool, a gap that no one in the history of English football has ever recovered from.
Almost every moment of this match certainly felt freighted with greater significance, for reasons even beyond the title.
Liverpool’s earlier 3-0 win over Bournemouth had after all framed the afternoon, but it was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s future that had framed much of the week. It now won’t influence any chat about the sack, or Mauricio Pochettino, for a long while. His team responded perfectly. They claimed yet another fine win over a big-six side – and the second of the week – with this even more impressive than the midweek victory over Tottenham Hotspur.
That was because United were so admirably all in. If there remain fair questions over whether Solskjaer’s tactics are best suited to the best sides – with fixtures over the big six remarkably forming 50 per cent of their mere six league wins – there should now be more pointed questions about one specific element of Pep Guardiola’s management that has left City losing a remarkable five games before Christmas.
What was really relevant to how the game panned out was just how spooked they were by that correct penalty decision.
This was a clear case of the first goal deciding a match, but not because it put United ahead. It was because City were so put out.
The champions hadn’t exactly been brilliant before then, but it was at least an end-to-end match wildly swinging from box to box. The game decisively swung one way for a key 15 minutes after Bernardo Silva clumsily tripped Marcus Rashford – in what, it must be said, was as clear a penalty as you’ll see. All of the action was around Ederson’s goal, and it could really have been all done then. United might well have been 3-0 or 4-0 up. They were that good, that focused. City, however, were that bad.
What summed it up was the simplicity of beating their backline for the second goal. Dan James and Martial were able to almost walk through them, against non-existent challenges, before the French forward enjoyed the time to pick his spot on the inside of the post.
The City players had displayed much more intensity and aggression in remonstrating with referee Anthony Taylor for the earlier Rashford penalty, but that alone might be the cause of the contrast.
This was far from the first time that this City – or, in truth, a Guardiola team – suffered a temporary melt-down after a decision they felt aggrieved by. It has happened against Tottenham Hotspur, against Liverpool, and for Guardiola himself against Atletico Madrid with Bayern Munich and against Chelsea with Barcelona.
It’s difficult not to think this is one area where Guardiola’s famous intensity goes from an extreme positive to a big negative, not to mention the damage done by always going on about decisions in the media. It is like his team start to reflect and radiate his touchline histrionics and stop doing things in the focused way they’re usually supreme at. That was probably all the more pronounced here because the sense of injustice was itself intensified by the knowledge this was the title on the line. It was that big.
They were in that much disarray. Rodri did not seem to know where to go. Gabriel Jesus was fluffing easy chances. David Silva was hesitantly patting at balls he should have been drilling. The defence was in a constant stage of agitation.
Rashford was the opposite, so calm in taking that key penalty.
The doubts and hesitation he seemed to suffer with spot-kicks earlier in the season appear to have been dealt with, as he has clearly developed a routine. Gaizka Mendieta-like, Rashford waited for Ederson to commit before rolling it into the corner.
City, to give them their due, did recover from that spell – at least mentally.
By half-time, they were back moving as a properly functioning team, and back pressing United in the way that causes such problems.
The problem for City, however, was that United remained just as intensely focused.
They knew the significance of a win here for their manager, and the club at this juncture. Every tackle reflected that, illustrating an intensity of application that only comes with these biggest of fixtures.
There was one challenge by Aaron Wan-Bissaka on Raheem Sterling that had such force that it also had a lot of risk about it – but he was rewarded for that extra effort. He came away with the ball. Fred meanwhile always seemed to be winning it. United just had that determination to always get anything on the ball, as when Victor Lindelof just about touched away a Kevin De Bruyne shot. It was enough in the moment.
The lead was enough on the day. Nicolas Otamendi scored late on but the damage had been done, in that key spell that has also fatally damaged City’s title challenges.
United have done their biggest rivals the biggest favour in beating their closest rivals, but this wasn’t really about any of that.
Their performance was about their manager, and their own sense of self. The final result, however, might still have been about the title.