Manchester United Beats City, Turning the Tables for a Day

MANCHESTER, England — For a while on derby day, Old Trafford was a quiet, apprehensive sort of a place. On the field, Manchester City drew its pretty, disorienting patterns. In the stands, Manchester United’s fans watched on in truculent silence, fretting and murmuring and worrying about what was to come.

All of the noise came from the one corner where City’s fans were corralled. The lyrics of their songbook boomed around the stadium: the ones that crowed over past triumphs, the ones that reminded United of the way power has switched not just in Manchester, but in English soccer as a whole over the last decade or so. The rest of Old Trafford sat and listened, unable to find its voice.

With good reason. Manchester United, over the last seven years or so, has become a club trained to expect the worst. Not just against City: This is a team that has had to watch Liverpool run away with the Premier League this season; a team on course to miss out on the Champions League for the third time in five years; a team that has been beaten at home by Crystal Palace and Burnley, among others, in recent months.

But against City, the worst has arrived with startling regularity. For decades, this was a rivalry of geography, rather than history. Liverpool, Arsenal and Leeds United were United’s genuine foes and peers. City was just its local foil, an occasional pest to be treated with something between pity and disdain.

The last decade has changed all that. Nowhere has City’s transformation into English soccer’s foremost force been so evident as at Old Trafford. It has lost here just once in a decade in the league. Pep Guardiola, the coach who has turned the usurper into a superpower, had won every single one of his Premier League games here.

Derby day, for City, no longer holds any sense of dread. For United, it holds nothing but. That is as true for the players — fitful and reluctant in the opening stages — as it is for the fans. They did not, in those first 30 minutes, feel much like singing. Bitter prior experience had taught them that they would not, in the end, have much to sing about.

Everything turned not on the goal, but on a moment just before. Guardiola seemed to sense something was coming. He was down on his haunches in the technical area, shaking his head, a picture of trouble. Anthony Martial broke free down the left of City’s box. He had two choices: shoot or cut the call back to Bruno Fernandes, charging into the area.

Martial chose wrong. His shot was eagerly swallowed by Ederson, City’s goalkeeper. Fernandes looked furious: He stood for several seconds, staring at his teammate, arms outstretched, then turned away with his head in his hands, marveling at the folly of human existence.

Much of Old Trafford felt the same. Everyone in the stadium could see that the only option in that situation was to give the ball to Bruno Fernandes; in any situation, really. And in that moment, something clicked.

Modern team-building is a complicated thing: both an art and a science, a matter not only of the ferocious consumption of mathematical data but of touch and eye and judgment. The days when teams signed one player — no matter how good — to transform their fortunes, their identities, utterly should, really, have been consigned to the past.

There are too many variables — How will he settle? How will he adapt to his teammates? How long will he take to adapt to the rigors of a new league? — and too much to learn. Soccer is no longer plug and play; there are attacking patterns to learn, movements to memorize, pressing triggers to internalize.

These things take time, as another Manchester United midfielder, Fred, rather neatly demonstrates. There was a time when Fred was little more than a punchline. He had been signed for $60 million from Shakhtar Donetsk, under the nose of Guardiola himself, and yet it was — as one observer put it — “almost a joke” whenever he was on the ball. Fred seemed to encapsulate the malaise of the modern Manchester United.

That was not so long ago, but it seems to belong to a different world. Fred has, possibly, been Manchester United’s standout player this season: a dynamic midfield presence, combative but creative, full of running and drive and bite. He almost single-handedly powered Manchester United into a comeback against Liverpool in January; he dominated City’s vaunted midfield here.

It is not that Fred has suddenly become a good player. It is that he was never a bad player in the first place. Manchester’s squabbling twins did not try to sign him because of a few uncharacteristically good games in Ukraine; they were not misled by flawed scouting reports. He was not a glitch in the data. He just needed time, and the right structure around him, to flourish.

Fernandes, though, is different, something rarer still. His United career is still in its infancy, of course. He may yet burn brightly but briefly. Regardless, his impact has already been seismic. He has wrought some sort of alchemy on everything around him.

There is a soccer-specific explanation for that. He passes neatly, and crisply; he plays on the half-turn, always what Johan Cruyff used to describe as “facing the right way”; he wants, demands, the ball, and the responsibility for it.

United’s first goal was evidence of it: a free kick that he scooped, deftly and impudently, to Martial, whose finish squirmed under Ederson. “He is a risk taker,” Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the team’s manager, said. “He has courage, and he is brave enough to make mistakes. He has the X factor.”

He is just what United needed, in other words: a player who does not expect the worst.

Perhaps even more important, though, is what Solskjaer called the “connection” between Fernandes and Old Trafford, between player and fans. It is why the whole stadium knew what Martial should have done, in that moment before the goal, why it seemed there were 76,000 people with their arms outstretched, asking him why he had not passed.

In Fernandes, Old Trafford has a player it wants to see on the ball. It wants to see what he can do. They have seen enough of him — but, crucially, not too much of him — to think he can do anything. His presence alone means they do not have to expect the worst, not anymore.

It was after that moment that United found its voice: the team and the fans, at much the same time. Martial scored; Old Trafford exulted. Slowly, the noise from the City corner drifted and faded. Guardiola’s team still played the pretty patterns, but United growled and gnarled and clawed them away. There was not just hope that Solskjaer’s team could stand firm, but belief that it would.

Ninety-six minutes in, as Old Trafford waited for the final whistle, for confirmation that there was something to celebrate, Ederson scuffed a clearance straight to Scott McTominay, who had come on as a late substitute.

He was there to shore things up, to keep City at bay, to waste a little time. He was some distance out: 40 yards or so, at an angle. He shot first time, the ball curling toward goal as Ederson tried to scurry back. Even Solskjaer was taken aback by the reaction in the stands. It was a derby win, yes; an end to all that misery. But it was more than that. Sometimes, Manchester United remembered, good things happen too.