MANCHESTER, England — Three points from Old Trafford as Juan Mata’s goal held up in Man United’s 1-0 EFL Cup win over rivals Man City.
1. Mourinho gets rare win over Guardiola
Jose Mourinho’s domestic arrangements may be a bit of disaster, to use his own words, but at least his professional life has taken a turn for the better. In his programme notes for Wednesday’s game, Mourinho issued a grovelling apology to Manchester United fans for Sunday’s 4-0 defeat at Chelsea, but when he retreats to his expensive suite at the Lowry Hotel, he need not compose another. Not after a result he desperately required.
United won a derby, Mourinho beat Pep Guardiola and the EFL Cup holders were knocked out. This may not have the significance of Manchester City’s September win at Old Trafford in the Premier League, but at least Mourinho has recorded a first triumph over one of English football’s other heavyweights this season. After winning just three of his first 17 meetings with Guardiola, he tied the scores in their brief time in Manchester.
It helped that Mourinho named the much stronger side, featuring a mere four changes; his selection reflected his predicament. Guardiola’s belief that this is “the last of the competitions in terms of importance” was voiced in a prematch interview. He may not be distraught to be only fighting on three fronts, but raucous as the City fans were, a loss to United invariably stings. They may take this more seriously than him.
As it was, Guardiola is now in the longest winless run of his managerial career — six matches — after his biggest-ever buy helped decide the game. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whom he signed and sold at Barcelona, proved a barometer of the match, wasteful and out of sorts in the first half but livelier and more potent in the second. He set up Juan Mata’s goal, rolling a pass across the penalty area for the sure-footed Spaniard to finish.
It was a moment to indicate Mata has been underused by Mourinho. He offers quality, and if there was too little in this game at times, Mourinho has made a career out of securing unmemorable victories that feature clean sheets and offer evidence of a winning efficiency. This may be deemed worthy of adding to that list.
2. Teenagers pep up Man City
Guardiola always finds a way to be bold. Even though he showed a conventional streak by reverting to a back four, he packed his team with rookies for the sort of fixture where others would favour the tried and trusted. He picked two 19-year-old Spaniards, Aleix Garcia and Pablo Maffeo, with a grand total of three previous City starts between them. His side also contained a couple of 20-year-olds, even though Kelechi Iheanacho is rather more experienced and scored what proved the winner in last month’s derby, and Leroy Sane is the costliest German player ever.
The younger pair fared better. Sane, playing as a No. 10 for the first time in a City shirt, was rather anonymous. He did little to suggest he can rival David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne for the central creative roles in Guardiola’s strongest XI. If Sunday’s game against Southampton was his best in a City shirt, this may have been his worst.
Meanwhile, Iheanacho was unfortunate to be booked, losing his balance and upending Daley Blind, but it rather summed up his night. He lost his footing, his touch betrayed him, and he spurned a fine early chance when Jesus Navas, who was uncharacteristically accurate with his crossing, found him unmarked.
But Garcia was a composed presence in the centre of midfield, rarely wasting a pass and never looking overawed. Maffeo found himself marking Marcus Rashford, which made for a compelling duel. The right-back recovered to block his fellow teenager’s shot after the Englishman had initially sped in behind him. He impressed, too, with a last-ditch interception to stop Rashford’s cross reaching Paul Pogba.
Perhaps Maffeo could have been closer to Ibrahimovic when he crossed for Mata to score. Perhaps that is being harsh on a teenager who may prove the long-term solution to what is something of a problem position for City.
3. Carrick offers calm on comeback
While Guardiola turned to youth, Mourinho looked to experience. It highlights the difference in their philosophies. He brought in a 35-year-old as Michael Carrick completed a midfield triangle with Ander Herrera and Pogba. His selection had the benefit of accommodating the world’s most expensive player in his Juventus position on the left of the trio. It was a crowd-pleasing selection and also, after playing just two central midfielders backfired against City last month, a tactically sound one.
Yet it was not quite as catalytic as the United faithful may have hoped. On this evidence, it will take more than a tweak in formation to make Pogba the player United thought they were buying, yet there was one hint that he can be liberated and more lethal playing from the left. After he accelerated on to Ibrahimovic’s pass, his shot drew a terrific save from Willy Caballero. It was a reminder of his explosiveness, a quality Carrick would not claim to offer, but the veteran midfielder lent control.
Carrick has become a cause celebre in his absence, his merits championed by former teammates turned pundits. If some of the praise has been excessive, he has excelled on his rare appearances against Northampton, Fenerbahce and now City.
The only deep-lying playmaker at Mourinho’s disposal (at least while the exiled Bastian Schweinsteiger is taking selfies in the stands) adds another dimension to their play. Carrick often shows composure and positional awareness. He endangered United on an occasion when he possessed neither. He was fortunate a clumsy challenge on Garcia did not result in a penalty. Mike Dean, normally so keen to point to the spot, reprieved United, and Carrick went on to press his case for a first league start of the season.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.