Two key successive victories in the space of four days have reignited Manchester City’s season. From a sluggish slumber they have rose to within four points of the Premier League summit, with two games in hand, and booked their place in April’s Carabao Cup final.
If the win against Chelsea on Sunday came via a 25-minute blitz, then this derby win over Manchester United came via constant pressure from all angles. The imperious Phil Foden on the left, the robust defensive backline and the tenacity of Riyad Mahrez and Kevin De Bruyne. John Stones and Fernandinho provided the goals.
Stones completes City rejuvenation
If the past week has seen Pep Guardiola’s side turn a corner in their campaign, then perhaps this match represented the completion of Stones’s comeback. It was not three months ago that the England defender was on the brink of this squad, unable to get minutes and finding it hard both on and off the pitch. Now, however, he is at the heart of City’s upturn in form having started eight of their last 12 games.
It was his 50th-minute goal, his first for City since 2017, that set up this semi final win while his partnership with Ruben Dias, a mix of silk and steel, has been impressive. So much so that Aymeric Laporte cannot find a way into the starting XI. A back four of Dias, Stones, Kyle Walker - on the bench here after recovering from Covid - and Joao Cancelo is certainly a title-winning one.
At 26, Stones’s decision-making seems sounder than ever and he appears to be responding to Guardiola’s coaching. One particular dispossession of Paul Pogba captured Stones at his best: winning the ball cleanly before releasing another City attack. The emotion when he celebrated his goal felt cathartic while the embrace between him and Dias at full time spoke of the camaraderie building at the heart of City’s defensive axis.
Guardiola dedicates win to late Bell
The City manager will lead his side out for a League Cup final at Wembley for a fourth successive season. It could be a fourth consecutive triumph too should they defeat Tottenham Hotspur in April. However, this semi final win was tinged with the sadness of the passing of Colin Bell on Tuesday aged 74.
Bell, who is widely considered to be one of the club’s best ever players having been a part of the attacking triumvirate, along with Mike Summerbee and Francis Lee, that won the FA Cup, League Cup and Cup Winner’s Cup in the late 1960s, was remembered before kickoff. City’s players donned Bell’s No8 shirt as they walked out and observed a poignant minutes silence to remember the former player.
“It's for him, for his family,” Guardiola said as he dedicated his side’s win to Bell. “This person helped build something special for this club. It's an incredible victory for us to beat United away and to reach another final.” This tireless performance was a perfect tribute to him.
More semi final heartbreak for United
United, meanwhile, have to work out how they move to the next stage, having lost four successive semi finals in a year, in the FA Cup, Europa League and now the EFL Cup, twice to City. Is it psychological? Or tactical? Or individual errors? Probably all three, and something that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has to eradicate if United are to quicken their upward trajectory.
Solskjaer said prior to the game that there were “no excuses” for United not to perform in this semi final and although they played admirably, City were too good for them. "City can score many great goals and you can accept that but when you concede two set plays it's very disappointing,”he said afterwards.
“We were just not good enough in those moments. We didn't [deserve to win]. We didn't create too many chances ourselves, they didn't either, but we didn't have that extra finesse. When you concede two set plays that's very disappointing.”
Solskjaer’s mangled attack
One element of United’s that didn’t fully function was their attack. In recent games, Solskjaer has deployed Marcus Rashford on the right to accommodate Pogba in a more advanced position on the opposite flank, with Anthony Martial central, just ahead of Bruno Fernandes. The attacking element of the 4-2-3-1, however, has came unstuck.
It feels like it is an exercise, on Solskjaer’s part, to try and accommodate Pogba but as a consequence has moved Rashford out of his more favoured position. As a result, United have looked less potent going forward. Rashford’s impact has been minimal while Fernandes has not been at his best, possibly because of the shifting sands around him.
United’s defence and midfield base has been relatively consistent recently, aiding their push up the table, but the attack has been floundering; penalties have been their saviour in many ways. If Solskjaer has ambitions of beating Burnley in their next league game before taking on Liverpool next weekend, then he must reinstall Mason Greenwood and move Rashford back to the left in place of Pogba.