Manchester United have a first league double for a decade over Manchester City in a further sign that the faith shown by the board in Ole Gunnar Solskjær is being repaid.
United made their crosstown rivals appear the tamest City side brought here during Pep Guardiola’s four years in charge. United were simply far more dangerous than a strangely toothless opponent and were deserving victors in this 182nd derby that ended in the kind of jubilant scenes not witnessed at Old Trafford for a while. The three points keep United in fifth, and firmly in the hunt for a Champions League berth, while making it 10 matches unbeaten.
City, though, will be dethroned as champions and Liverpool crowned before the Merseysiders play again if Guardiola’s side lose their next two matches, against Arsenal and Burnley.
Just under five years had passed since United’s last home league derby triumph, though for encouragement they could look to the two victories over City already this term, including December’s reverse fixture.
Yet City had gone close to humiliating United in January’s 3-1 Carabao Cup win here during a first-half display that cast them as alarmingly callow.
Solskjær fielded a 3-4-1-2 that showed seven changes from Thursday’s FA Cup victory at Derby: only Victor Lindelöf, Luke Shaw, Bruno Fernandes and Fred were retained. Guardiola’s familiar 4-1-4-1 had one fewer adjustment, the headline being that Kevin De Bruyne’s sore shoulder meant he was excluded, as Phil Foden became the youngest Englishman to start this fixture for City for 12 years.
Solskjær spoke of having to press City and this is how his team began: Nicolás Otamendi, Ederson, and Oleksandr Zinchenko all being hassled by United’s excellent front three – Anthony Martial, Daniel James and Bruno Fernandes.
Twice Guardiola was unhappy due to oddly loose passes from his men. First a Zinchenko ball towards Ederson nearly put Martial in. Then, Ilkay Gündogan erred in similar fashion.
In what was a vibrant atmosphere City’s response was to claim two corners – each off Brandon Williams, the second deriving from a clearing header. This pointed to a passage of City dominance in which Martial had to clear from under David de Gea’s bar, the goalkeeper having previously kept the scores level with a sharp save.
This came when Sergio Agüero raced along the right with Luke Shaw in attendance. The No 10 turned and found Foden and he switched the ball left to Raheem Sterling. A dip of the shoulders and the forward was clear – his shot was heading into De Gea’s left-hand corner before he steered wide.
United were in danger of being engulfed by the blue wave. Foden probed and saw a Harry Maguire clearance rebound off him for a goal-kick. From this, though, the home side finally broke clear, Fernandes hit James early, and he ran through, though his attempt was too close to Ederson.
This quick-release tactic came close to bearing fruit the next time United threatened. This time Williams hit Martial, though after bringing the ball down his shot was blocked.
James was next to utilise speed: the jet-heeled wide man turned Otamendi inside and out along the right and drew the foul. Fernandes hit the wall from the free-kick, Fred nutmegged Zinchenko, and United were now posing all the questions. One of these had Martial outmanoeuvring Fernandinho and cutting in from the left but a tame shot made easy work for Ederson.
Ederson, though, was about to commit the contest’s crucial howler. Fernandes won and took a free-kick on the left, after being kicked by Gündogan. The German was then doubly culpable as he and Agüero allowed Martial to glide in and volley Fernandes’s dinked delivery. This went straight at Ederson yet in a butterfingers moment he allowed the ball to squeeze under his hands at his near post.
City were now being punched open at will. Aaron Wan-Bissaka had become a buccaneering right-back, terrorising the visitors along his flank. Fernandes, Martial, Fred and James joined him in a free-for-all that had Guardiola’s men in damage-limitation mode, desperate to reach the break.
That they did, still at 1-0, was perhaps fortunate as during the half’s closing exchanges Otamendi looked to have brought down Fred for a penalty. VAR did not intervene and instead Mike Dean, the referee, booked the midfielder.
What City were missing was the usual power to bewitch their opponent from midfield. At the second-half’s start they found their range. Sterling slipped in Agüero and he finished though this was ruled offside. Ederson, though, still slumbered. A João Cancelo back-pass was miscontrolled and with Martial thundering in the keeper only just recovered.
City claimed a corner on the right and from 25 yards Foden’s shot was tipped over for another corner from the same quadrant. This came to nothing and Guardiola swapped Agüero and Bernardo Silva for Gabriel Jesus and Riyad Mahrez, the Catalan’s frantic body language telling the tale of his team: an odd lack of poise and skill when required.
Instead another James burst left Otamendi resembling a statue and Ederson had to repel a blistering effort. And while from here City probed along both flanks, forcing corners, now came a second Ederson calamity: a throw out in the 96th minute went straight to Scott McTominay and the substitute found the empty net from 40 yards out.
Solskjær punched the air and at the final whistle United’s support serenaded their manager. He and his men are certainly building the late-season momentum so badly missed last year when everything fell apart.