Here we go. Manchester's finest lock horns again. The Manchester Derby is here to divide the M62 in colour and heart. Red, blue and passionate preferences collide once more. And this time, there is a sense of deja vu. The dynamics of footballing power in England seem restored. There may even be sense of boredom. Manchester City haring away to the finish line and the rest following like tortoise. It is so akin to most seasons since 2013, that one could even mistake our world for the normal one. Yet, there is no real normalcy in the world. Masks and distance at a time the world needs genuine care. No fans and doctored cheers at a time the world is searching for organic cheer. And City play football that makes you happy and cheerful. It is just how they behave. Muscle memory due to obsessive training.
Yet, we must still have a race. Hare and tortoise may it be. There are legitimate grounds for this. City have a penchant for the overthinking. Manchester United have a DNA for the late surge. And so we still seek the finish and we shall thus race.
Manchester Derby - City goal's access denied
Pep Guardiola's team have taken the race all too literally. For all intents and purposes, they are pulling away and maintaining distance. Even from their side of the goal. This seems to be their containment policy: do not let them come close.
The Champions League tie against Borussia Monchengladbach is a glowing exhibition of City's newfound solidity. On an average, Manchester City were 47 metres from their goal when they regained possession. That is roughly where the centre circle of the pitch is. In context, their opposition won the ball back just outside their box.
City have mastered the art of patience in possession. More patience - as if that were even possible from a Guardiola team. Imagine waking up at 5am as habit. And then waking up even earlier. For Manchester City though, the simile is far more colourful. Kid at an ice cream parlour with unlimited budget and access, as opposed to the solitary scoop.
One can never really escape the odd reference to budget while talking anything blue in Manchester. However, City's marketing in the summer was more profitable than profligate. And their premier purchase, Ruben Dias, has been transformative in his impact. City is currently on a winning run stretching 21 games. That is nearly three months of only victories. No defeats. Not even draws. In this run, Manchester City have conceded only 8 goals and kept 13 clean sheets. In no game have they conceded more than once.
Manchester Derby - City and redundant opponents
And their defensive solidity is not an exchange for lack of penetration. City have been sharp and incisive in attack. Smooth as hot knife through butter or any platitude of the ilk. Precise angles, geometrical patterns, triangles and other exacts of scientific precision. And also artistic with the charm to almost hypnotize opposition into concession. City have the ball, they play it around among themselves and win a football game. It seems that utterly simple.
Even when they lose the ball, it seems like a device to mislead. Moments later, like a swarm of bees, City sting with force and number. It sends the opposition into a state of panic and they imagine what is not. Hurried, confused and completely consumed, a series of mishaps result. Passes that do not exist, dribbles that are not necessary and movements into alleys with only dead ends. City, consequently, win the ball back to launch a typical counterattack. Science marries art and there is blue delight. It seems as though a group of boys are playing in a garage. Not among each other, but against the walls.
We reference the game against Wolves. City had the ball in their control nearly thrice as long as their opposition. They had ten times the shots Wolves had on target and scored four times as many they conceded. For most parts of the night, City rendered their opponents redundant. It felt as though the opposition was just there: not serving any purpose. And eventually acquiescent to City's fancy. And that has been City's habitual modus operandi for the last 81 days.
Watching City play feels somewhat akin to chancing upon that song from your adolescence that you have categorically avoided. One that still has the alluring scent of romance and nostalgia that makes you stare into distance, lost and yet found.
Manchester Derby - United and love for mountains
That is the mountain Manchester United is tasked to scale on derby day. Manchester City, Pep Guardiola, the mind games and the myths. A lot of teams would perhaps lose it in their minds - play the reputation and not the team. In a distinctively red Mancunian manner, however, this is exactly the set of circumstances Solskjaer feels comfort. Panic, confusion and setback is his starter pack for success.
"And Solskjaer has won it!" Statement of football folklore made in Barcelona and rehashed in Paris. All set in the backdrop of crisis. In essence, the same is also what characterizes Manchester United. They seem to excel in situations created carefully for them to fail. In a way, the derby is perfectly timed for Solskjaer's United. There are very few teams in Europe who would dare to draw glove with Pep's City at the moment. Perhaps United can actually lay a glove. This is, after all, a team that loves a counterpunch. And maybe, a City punch for a United counterpunch is what the title race needs.
One can never put it past this bunch of reds either. For all the educated reasoning of City's dominance, one might very well see Scott McTominay splashed all over Monday's front pages. Framed on his knees, with jaw tight, mouth gaping, fists clenched, soaking wet in the Manchester rain, embraced and engulfed in red delight. Sometimes football does not make sense. Certain games in context are meant to be loved, not understood. How else does one explain Fred and McTominay win a midfield battle against De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva.
Manchester Derby - all in the mind
Perhaps there is an explanation, albeit philosophical. Guardiola's mind is a place of myriad intricacies. Joao Cancelo in midfield and full back, simultaneously. Ederson shot stopping and goal assisting, all in a breath. Mahrez, Sterling and Foden mazing around the penalty area. But also, collapsing against Lyon in the Champions League. This great mind of Guardiola can overthink on the odd night. His mind is the mistress of his charms and the close contriver of his harms.
And that is the greatest praise one can reserve for any football club. Manchester City have been so superior that any minor hiccup would require their equal participation. If United are to conquer the Etihad, City would have to concurrently self destruct. Just like the fable where the hare had to rest in complacency for the tortoise to win.
But reality tends to be very different from fairytales and yet, fairytales are what keep our great game relevant.