A familiar trope of the classic ghost story involves an encounter with a stranger that appears entirely normal until it’s suddenly realised that while the protagonist has made distinct footprints in the sand or dust or snow, the stranger has left no trace at all.
Saturday’s Manchester derby felt similar. A lot of people will feel they watched it, although none of them were actually there. Some will even claim to have played in it. Many newspapers carried the score and vague slightly hallucinatory reports, paragraph upon paragraph about nothing. And yet go back, examine the scene, and it turns out it left no trace whatsoever.
Often those who have witnessed apparently supernatural events, feeling threatened by the scepticism of others, exaggerate, adding corroboratory details to shore up their recollection against the doubts. “In my time against Manchester City that’s the best performance we have had,” said Ole Gunnar Solskjær. Perhaps it was even true, at least from a defensive point of view.
United were disciplined. Their two banks of four stayed narrow and City rarely looked like having the wit to break through. Only very occasionally, when they switched play quickly, did they look like they might find a winner. There was a half-chance for Raheem Sterling, although he was surrounded by five United players by the time a shot was possible, and a very good chance, created by a sumptuous first-time Kevin De Bruyne pass that Riyad Mahrez dithered over. And that was it.
But even those occasional flickerings of menace had gone by the second half. City were flat, their passing sloppy and, perhaps most remarkably, they were apparently content with that. Pep Guardiola made one substitution in the whole game. Phil Foden and Bernardo Silva remained on the bench. There was no attempt to change the shape, no attempt to increase the pace. In part, perhaps, the issue is personnel: had Sergio Agüero been fit and had Leroy Sané not been sold to Bayern, it might have been different. But there also seemed here to be a change of attitude.
It has been remarkable this season how quickly the outlook has changed. After a decade or so in which meetings of the big sides were all about high presses smashing into each other, thrilling affairs of attacking abandon, within two months they have retreated to what they were 15 years ago, dominated by caution and the fear of defeat. This was the same pattern as United against Chelsea, or Chelsea against Tottenham, or the final stages of City against Liverpool.
In context, it makes sense: when it required 95 points or more to win the title, draws were not much better than defeats. Now it looks as though the league could be won with a total in the mid-80s (Tottenham, the leaders, are on course for 83), a hard-fought point regains some of its value. Plus, as we keep being reminded, the curtailed pre-season and the lack of time between games makes it more difficult for those sides who favour a hard press to prepare.
But still, from City it remains a surprise to see them quite so flat, and quite so unbothered by the fact. They have not been at their best this season. They did lose three times to United last season (albeit one of those in a Carabao Cup semi-final second leg by a margin insufficient to overturn their first-leg lead), each time undone on the counter. Guardiola, understandably, was determined that should not happen again. His attitude of “Guys, I am sorry: this is how I play” has been replaced by something more pragmatic. And there is an irony to that.
For years the criticism of Guardiola was that he had no Plan B, that he never compromised no matter the opposition. Yet the truth is that often it has been precisely his attempts to close off the opposition counter that have undone him – selecting Ilkay Gündogan rather than Sterling for the Champions League quarter-final at Anfield in 2018, switching to a back three against Lyon last season, fielding two holding midfielders against Leicester in September.
It may be that this is a necessary stage of City, something they have to go through as part of their redevelopment. Building a second great team isn’t easy but if Guardiola is to do it, it probably makes sense for him, from the start, to try to ensure it isn’t as vulnerable on the counter as his first great team proved in key European ties.
But watching City plod around on Saturday, mustering only 54% possession against a team that were quite happy to let them have the ball, even in the awareness this is a side in transition, was still a jolt. This is a City that are rapidly losing their aura. They don’t really look like a Guardiola team any more. They’ve already dropped as many points this season as they did in the whole of 2017-18. And yet it may not matter: they’re certainly not out of the title race.
The genius of the best ghost stories often lies in the fact that almost nothing happens, that there is a sense of something going on, somewhere, that we can’t quite perceive, that leaves behind no clear evidence. Each passing moment imperceptibly ratchets up the tension.
Saturday ended with City ninth in the table, yet only five points off the top. These may be ghost games in a ghost championship, but the denouement could be extraordinary.