Anyone concerned that famous old fixtures like the Manchester derby are becoming devoid of emotion without supporters need only have looked at Gabriel Jesus’ expression as Ederson just failed to keep out Bruno Fernandes’ second-minute penalty.
Manchester City’s Brazil forward netted a midweek brace in the 4-1 win over Wolves to persuade Pep Guardiola to keep him in the line-up on Sunday.
One of Jesus’ big calling cards is his work rate, never one to shirk defensive duties that plenty of attackers dread.
Even so, haring back into his own area to clumsily foul Anthony Martial after mis-controlling a throw-in was taking that trait to unhelpful extremes.
Ederson got a firm hand to Fernandes’ strike but could not prevent City from conceding their earliest ever Premier League goal at the Etihad Stadium. Jesus hit his head with his hands and howled in frustration.
At that moment it was easy to remember the eye-opening quotes the 23-year-old supplied during a goal drought last season
Not our day.
— Manchester City (@ManCity) March 7, 2021
“Always I think, ‘Wow I have to score’ because I’m playing for a big club in big competitions with big players,” he said.
“I think it happens with other players. I cannot talk about other players I can only talk about me when I’m not happy with me I want to shoot myself in the head because it’s difficult for me.”
If City’s collective demeanour had been one of swaggering confidence fuelled by inevitable triumph during their 21-match winning run, it was never one Jesus could comfortably tap into.
He now has no goals in 10 derby appearances, but you won’t need to tell him that. Sergio Aguero’s expiring contract and the likelihood of City bringing in an elite forward replacement probably weighs heavily, too.
Nevertheless, Jesus led from the front as Guardiola’s side sought to recover from a shambling start.
He was lurking when Harry Maguire cleared a dangerous Kevin De Bruyne cross – despite a patchy performance, City’s midfield talisman created eight opportunities for team-mates – and a running battle before half-time saw the United centre-back booked for a foul on his opponent.
8 – Kevin De Bruyne created 8 chances today, the joint-most by a player in a @premierleague game against Man Utd (since 2003-04), and the fourth different man to do so –
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) March 7, 2021
Jesus had two shots blocked and concluded a half he began clattering into Martial by clattering into the post in a vain attempt to convert Riyad Mahrez’s cross-cum-shot.
In the opening stages of the second period, it was Jesus’ lay-off that saw Rodri hit the crossbar. An equaliser felt close, but then the roof caved in on Guardiola’s men.
Joao Cancelo has been a revelation in his hybrid full-back/midfielder role, but Martial and Marcus Rashford’s tirelessly penetrative running offered a reminder he can still lack when it comes to purely defensive duties.
The Portugal international veered into no-mans land under Dean Henderson’s throw, allowing the excellent Luke Shaw to start and finish a wonderful counter-attack.
For a spell in the middle of the second half, a defence breached only 19 times in the Premier League this season appeared to be wearing an ‘all through traffic’ sign. Cancelo was spared from himself as Kyle Walker entered the fray to shore up City’s right-hand side before a dejected Jesus made way for Phil Foden.
The lead at the top of the Premier League is 11 points and this result – Solskjaer’s third win in succession at the Etihad Stadium – should count for little beyond bragging rights. But Europe’s elite will have taken note.
1 – Among the 67 managers Pep Guardiola has faced more than three times across all competitions as a top-flight boss, Ole Gunnar Solskjær is the only one to have beaten the Spaniard (4) more often that he has lost to Guardiola (3). Devil. pic.twitter.com/RKl7lhGLJq
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) March 7, 2021
As City strained to get back into the match, ghosts of other Guardiola setbacks returned. Raheem Sterling, like Jesus still without a goal in this fixture, spurned glorious chances; players did not get shots away in a crowded penalty area; individual errors piled up and counter-attacking routes were left wide open.
A marque signing like Erling Haaland would solve some of Sunday’s problems in the opposition penalty area, but little of what unfolded in other areas of the field.
Speaking at his pre-match news conference, Guardiola rejected any notion of a reality check perhaps being useful for his side. Such questionable logic is unlikely to feature in his forensic analysis of the game.
However, the last time United bloodied a City team bound for the title in April 2018, they did so after Liverpool had ransacked them in the Champions League quarter-finals. This lesson is at least more handily timed.
City’s rock-solid look for large parts of this season was entirely absent and that will concern Guardiola, as it is their key point of difference from unsuccessful tilts at European glory.
Their collective loss of heads can only be partially explained by Jesus shooting himself in the foot.