Manchester City’s third-choice goalkeeper Zack Steffen has had an interesting introduction to big game occasions for his club.
On Sunday at Chelsea, he started by terrifying his back four by picking up a back pass in the very first minute. At Old Trafford last night his own player John Stones put the ball past him in to the net in the second. The goal was ruled out for offside.
But in both games – following those early worries – the American found himself with hardly anything to do. City won both matches comfortably. Against Chelsea, it was not a particular surprise. Here against an improving Manchester United side it was.
This was a big test for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side and they failed it pretty convincingly
Solskjaer’s Red Devils lost 2-0 to rivals Manchester City in the Carabao Cup semi-finals
Pep Guardiola’s City side reached their fourth successive Carabao Cup final on Wednesday
This was a big test for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side and they failed it pretty convincingly. United were not particularly bad. They were in the game until Fernandinho’s clinching goal with five minutes remaining. But nor were they particularly good in any way and that is the pertinent point.
We expected more, for sure. United have been rolling nicely in the Premier League either side of Christmas, scoring good goals, nicking tight games and as such building the kind of momentum you need ahead of a game against Pep Guardiola’s side.
So we thought they may worry City but instead they simply hit a brick wall. This was no chasing, far from it. United were organised and largely resolute and they responded to John Stones’ early second-half goal with some sporadic spells of possession.
But what did they really do? Who left a mark on the game for United? Bruno Fernandes brought a very good save from the American Steffen with a 20-yard shot in the first period but after that there was not terribly much to cause the 25-year-old any real concern.
United have improved under Solskjaer. If they take a point at Burnley next Tuesday they will move above Liverpool to the top of the table.
Nevertheless, this game pointed to enduring issues, problems they are yet to solve. Namely how to establish more control of the ball against the very good teams and how to manage a game with more certainty.
United’s star midfielder Bruno Fernandes looks dejected at Old Trafford as he was kept quiet
This United team can be exciting to watch. They have some box office players. Fernandes, Marcus Rashford and, when he is fit and mentally in tune, young Mason Greenwood. They are capable of turning games around and rescuing games late on. But forcing other teams to play at their pace and to their rhythms? Not so very much.
United remain skittish. They lack reliability. They are prospering this season on the back of their own strides forwards but also from the inconsistency of others.
Place this United side in any of the last three or four Premier League seasons and they would have been contenders for fourth and little more.
The truth is they probably need a couple more players of real quality. United need a world class holding player and a centre half. They could probably be improved in both full-back positions too. Solskjaer has been fortunate with injuries this season at a time when other clubs – such as Wednesday night’s opponents – have not.
City defender John Stones opened the scoring in the second half on Wednesday evening
This all sounds terribly picky and, at a time when United are occupying an exalted league position, it most certainly is.
United’s form has been good, the resilience of their over-scrutinised young manager has been impressive. But United will need to get to another level if they are really going to challenge for this year’s Premier League and this was a night that illustrated that.
They were sharp at times in the first period. United’s transition from defence to attack can be seriously hard to handle and there were glimpses of that against a City team that is only just coming in to good form itself.
With the much improved pairing of Scott McTominay and Fred sitting in front of the back four, Paul Pogba was asked to occupy the left position of the front three. If the Frenchman is ever to succeed at United – in itself highly unlikely – it is going to have to be from this position.
City were never greatly stretched but had to be on their mettle. On occasion, the most serious threat to their goal seemed to come from a linesman on the near side who seemed intent on leaving his offside calls until the ball was pretty much in the net.
City midfielder Fernandinho made it two with a fine strike following a corner in 83rd minute
United needed a match winner here, a stand out performer. City had them. Fernandinho – who will be so hard to replace if he leaves in the summer – was one while their central defender Ruben Dias was another. Further forward, Kevin De Bruyne used the ball better than anybody else on the field.
The home team did not have those individual performances to drive them. Fernandes is dangerous while Rashford has been in some decent form. But is that enough in the really big games? Does there not have to be more of a collective presence? Some authority?
Under Solskjaer, United have become increasingly dangerous without yet reaching the levels of intimidation and brooding desire that characterised their great teams of the modern age.
This was a fourth semi-final defeat for Solskjaer and that will hurt him. In the league, meanwhile, he will know that the likes of City and Liverpool will improve as the campaign moves on. United will have to do likewise if they are to make good their recent return to relevance.