If you managed to watch the entire Manchester derby without endlessly scanning your phone or falling asleep, then you deserve a medal.
The most subdued and uneventful Manchester derby of recent times fittingly took place in an empty stadium. The only notable talking point came when VAR correctly waved off a Man United penalty when Marcus Rashford was ruled offside in the build-up.
United's cagey approach was perhaps understandable given the disappointment of their Champions League exit in midweek, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be content that City were unable to heap further misery on the embattled United manager.
But despite City's recent struggles, the meekness of this performance in the context of what has been a difficult start to the season will leave many scratching their heads.
19 - Man City's points tally of 19 after 11 Premier League matches is our worst such tally at this stage of a season since the 2008/09 campaign (13) and our biggest decline (4 seasons) in the Premier League era. Uncharacteristic.@ManCity | #ManCity | #MCFC pic.twitter.com/pAipzZYD46
— StatCity (@StatCity) December 13, 2020
In his post-match comments Pep Guardiola conveyed a sense of satisfaction that City had come away with a point against a big rival. But his uncharacteristically low-energy demeanor on the sidelines during the game reflected the lethargy in his team's performance on the pitch.
City are a shadow of the side they were when winning consecutive league titles in 2018 and 2019. Their inconsistent form throughout last season has been carried into this campaign, where they have now made their worst start to a league season since 2008/2009. That was the first campaign following the Abu Dhabi takeover when the club began to transform, so for a Pep Guardiola side to slip to that extent is something we haven't previously seen during his managerial career.
So why has Guardiola's team suddenly become so cautious? City's lack of pressing when out of possession is the most obvious change in their approach. This appears to be a tactical decision to reserve some of the players' energy to stay the course in what is already proving to be a physically gruelling season.
⛔️ Man City are involved in a PL goalless draw for the first time since Oct 2018 (v Liverpool) - had gone 78 PL games without a 0-0 pic.twitter.com/OAv9WeI26q
— Sky Sports Statto (@SkySportsStatto) December 12, 2020
This approach is somewhat understandable given the demands of this season's schedule, but it has taken away one of the key aspects of City's play that made them so dominant in their title-winning seasons. The lack of pressing has made City more vulnerable to counter attacks, as shown in their 2-0 defeat to Spurs last month.
This shift in style has seen City become a slower, less incisive and more predictable side. But in saying that, Guardiola's team has put together a run of six consecutive clean sheets which equals a club record. The return to form of John Stones has bolstered Guardiola's defensive options at a time when Aymeric Laporte's form and fitness has become less reliable, and from a defensive point of view, City looked more solid at Old Trafford than they have for large parts of the past 12 months.
6 - Man City have kept 6 clean sheets in a row for the 5th time in the club's history and for the 1st time since January 2019. The club have never kept 7 consecutive clean sheets. Stoned.@ManCity | #ManCity | #MCFC pic.twitter.com/MJnfeArup9
— StatCity (@StatCity) December 12, 2020
So while Guardiola may point to greater defensive solidity and a more rested squad as justification for the performance, the reality is that City's aura is being eroded and on current form, their chances of closing the six point gap between them and the top of the table are starting to look slim.
It's the first time we have seen Pep Guardiola manage a team into a fifth season, and it may also be the most difficult period he has found himself in during his managerial career. His recent decision to extend his contract a further two years suggests that he has no intention of walking away any time soon.
The calls of Pep becoming 'yesterday's man' might be a little premature, but there is no doubt that City need to find an extra gear soon before they slip out of another title race.
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