Man United haven’t challenged rivals City, but a derby is different

During his tenure as manager of Manchester City, Pep Guardiola has generally attempted to maintain decorum when discussing their neighbors, Manchester United, but earlier this season, the mask slightly lifted. When questioned about potential opponents for the Premier League title this year, he first mentioned Arsenal and then Liverpool. However, a reporter cut him off and asked, “Manchester United?” The game was revealed by the sly smile that appeared on Guardiola’s face at the suggestion. For United, the uncomfortable truth is that Guardiola’s response makes sense.

He has five titles and eight other major trophies from his seven complete seasons at the Etihad Stadium. He already has three wins from last season, which is the same amount as United has had overall since he moved to England in 2016. Guardiola has encountered opposition from Chelsea, Arsenal, and Liverpool, but not often from United. Guardiola advised fans to “fasten your seat belts” during his first City press conference over seven years ago, but it was difficult to comprehend at the time just how far they had come ahead of their competitors. The most recent United manager assigned to make up ground is Erik ten Hag, but before Sunday’s Old Trafford derby—the first of the season—the distance between the

When asked if United might be a title contender at a press conference on Friday, Guardiola attempted to be polite as usual. “It’s too early,” he declared. “United is always a contender when you see the fixtures [in June]. From my experience, a lot can happen when you play just nine games. Even though we trailed by a small margin in February and March, we managed to prevail in the end. With nine games remaining, ask me a question. The teams that are currently running a little bit behind can attend.” However, if bookies are to be believed, United isn’t even close. This season, City is the favorite to win a record-tying fourth championship in a row, while United, who have lost,

A year into his job, Ten Hag believes they are starting to close the gap. They beat City, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham and Barcelona last season but the problem, the Dutch manager says, is finding the consistency that Guardiola has managed to cultivate.

“In this moment we are six points back so we have to catch up,” Ten Hag said on Friday. “We are in the right direction and we have a way to go.” The worry for United fans is that their club has rarely got it right off the pitch, so they are unlikely to challenge on it.

City have run into their own problems and are still fighting more than 100 charges related to breaches of the Premier League’s financial rules but their recruitment of players over the past decade has been largely successful while United’s transfer policy has often bordered on chaos. United’s net spend on transfers since 2014 stands at $1.48 billion, while City’s is $916 million. It’s not that City have spent more money, it’s just that they’ve done it better.

As United showed with a 2-1 win in January, all that goes out of the window in a derby and despite a poor start to the season, Ten Hag will feel that a City team that have lost three of their past six games and haven’t kept a clean sheet for more than a month have vulnerabilities he can exploit.

The bigger success, however, would be closing the gap for more than just a one-off game and finally wiping the smile off Guardiola’s face.

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