Man Utd must learn lessons from semi-final defeats if they are to be title challengers
United suffer another semi-final defeat, but must learn from it if they are to mount a serious title challenge this year
If the result alone hadn't quite been enough to quell the recent surge in giddy predictions about what his Manchester United side might achieve this season, perhaps one tiny snippet of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's post-match assessment did the trick.
Wading through the inevitable barrage of post-match questions about his United team's inability to clear the semi-final hurdle, Solskjaer was eager to stress that this defeat - sobering though it was - was not the result of some deep-rooted psychological issue for his players.
"Sometimes you meet good teams in the semis and we just didn’t have enough," he said. "We met, at the moment, probably the best team in England, and we didn’t have enough today."
Manchester City - the best team in England. One of Solskjaer's predecessors has been ridiculed for similar comments. Here, though, on this evidence, it looked a fair assessment.
United were not the better side, yet had not been terrible. They lost the game in moments. Two goals, both entirely avoidable from a defensive point of view, had been enough for City. The same miscommunications and lapses in concentration that were their undoing against Sevilla in Germany and Chelsea at Wembley last summer cost United again.
After a breathless opening 15 minutes, in which United carried just as much threat as their opponents, Pep Guardiola's side - depleted due to the recent coronavirus outbreak at the club - gradually tightened their grip on possession. After John Stones bundled in an opener early in the second-half, City were in control. United rarely looked like finding a response before Fernandinho punished a tepid Aaron Wan-Bissaka headed clearance.
On many occasions during recent derby meetings United had become paralysed by the sense of occasion, but that was not the case at Old Trafford. Here, City were just... better.
To dwell too much on their semi-final record misses the point given the context of where United find themselves. Avoid defeat at Burnley next week, and they will go at least a point clear at the top of the Premier League. Solskjaer's United are undeniably more consistent than the one he inherited. Even at this stage of this season, that they are poised to go clear at the top says something about the progress the Norwegian has made in returning them to the force they once were.
While another semi-final defeat matters little compared to the prospect of a first genuine title challenge in years, the nature of this defeat - United’s tendency to switch off at crucial moments in big games - should come as a warning to anyone who thinks Solskjaer’s side are genuine contenders for the league.
Unlike recent Premier League seasons, no team has stepped forward as the obvious dominant force during this campaign. Though United are a point away from being outright leaders, there are only four points separating them from seventh-place Everton. With such a delicate balance, United’s hopes of making a serious push for the title will likely rest on the games against the other teams bunched towards the top. They are yet to play Liverpool, but have only taken two points from a possible nine against the next three sides - Tottenham, Leicester and City. This, particularly with City threatening to return to their form of old, will need to be improved.
Wednesday night’s loss could be viewed as a reality check for United. Progress has unequivocally been made under Solskjaer, but as he alluded to, there is still plenty of room for improvement before they are regarded as being at the same level of their near neighbours.
To say their team suffers from a mental block when it comes to semi-finals is, as the United manager said, slightly harsh, but learning to eradicate the kind of individual errors they have been prone to in all four semi defeats over these last 12 months will be a crucial factor in deciding if they do have what it takes to go the distance in the league.
Should they manage to, a few semi-final defeats won't matter quite so much.