When Ole Gunnar Solskjær declared his intention to bounce back from Manchester United’s Champions League elimination, he had a derby win in mind. He had won three out of five previously as the club’s manager against City. Another one would begin the healing process after the damaging defeat at RB Leipzig.
Solskjaer had to settle for less, but it was still something, and a result that served to take the sting out of a heated week. He would have been happy with a point at half-time after City created a few good chances, with the best being a one-on-one for Riyad Mahrez against David de Gea. The United goalkeeper had been one of the villains of Leipzig, but there was redemption for him here when he made an instinctive block.
City knew United have struggled here this season, winning one of their previous five Premier League games and enduring three ugly reverses. Could they follow the lead of Crystal Palace, Tottenham and Arsenal? They could reflect on another solid performance. The goals are not flowing for them, which remains a concern, and something that must be rectified if they are to sustain a title challenge.
City have now gone 565 minutes without conceding a goal. The closest they came to conceding was in the 47th minute, only for VAR to call back the award of a penalty for Marcus Rashford after seeing he had first strayed offside.
How would United begin? That was the first question of the game, given how badly they have done so on recent occasions. The numbers showed they had gone behind in each of their previous four matches in the first-half.
They almost bucked the trend because the first clear chance was theirs. It followed a Luke Shaw corner and saw Victor Lindelöf rise the highest to flick on. Scott McTominay strained every sinew to reach the ball at the far post to apply what might have been a decisive touch. He could not get there.
United had a couple more flickers from corners before half-time and a couple of scraps around the City box, with Bruno Fernandes swiping at a difficult half-volley and Paul Pogba crowded out after a loose ball out from Ederson.
It was keenly contested – tackles flying in – and it was cagey at the outset, which United would probably have signed for. City squeezed high, wanting to pinch the ball when United built out from the back and everybody knew that one mistake stood to shape the contest.
City probed, creating the better chances before the interval, none better than the one for Mahrez on 35 minutes. It was a lovely box-to-box move, Gabriel Jesus driving it but, inevitably, it was Kevin De Bruyne who ignited it. There was an audible gasp inside the ground when he took Jesus’s pass outside the area and instantly played in Mahrez on the overlap, setting him up one-on-one with De Gea. The United goalkeeper made a vital block. De Bruyne lifted the rebound high.
Raheem Sterling had looked dangerous earlier, although his touch was heavy following a De Bruyne pass in the seventh minute. De Bruyne roamed from his advanced midfield role, leading the press and shimmering with menace. Sterling’s best first-half moment came when he swapped passes with De Bruyne and cut sharply inside Aaron Wan-Bissaka before skating away from Lindelöf. Harry Maguire blocked his shot.
City could also point to the opening when Mahrez dropped a ball over the top for Jesus, who got to it on the half-volley ahead of Wan-Bissaka, only to blaze high. It was a hard skill and Wan-Bissaka had brought the pressure. Jesus will feel he ought to have done better.
Pep Guardiola prizes control – it has felt as though Solskjær is addicted to chaos – and the City manager sought it by starting with Fernandinho and Rodri in front of his defence. Solskjær had chopped back to a back four, having begun in a 3-4-1-2 system against Leipzig. His big move was to recall Pogba to the starting line-up, playing him on the left of a midfield diamond.
Pogba imposed himself but it was a flash of trademark Fernandes craft that appeared to have got United in for the opening goal at the start of the second-half. His whipped cross found Rashford, who touched the ball away from Kyle Walker before being caught by him. The penalty award would be reversed when VAR spotted an offside against Rashford.
United raised the tempo. Pogba fed Rashford, who shot wastefully, but it was the hosts who looked more purposeful in the first part of the second-half. Solskjær, who remained in his seat as usual, wondered whether his team could piece together a decisive counter; if Fernandes or Pogba could make something happen. The fans were missed terribly, but there was nonetheless an intensity about the spectacle.
Back came City and De Bruyne seemed set to score after he was teed up by Jesus, who had appeared offside earlier in the move. Maguire made an important block.