The strange thing about Sunday’s Manchester derby was how routine it felt. When Hungary defeated England 6-3 at Wembley in 1953, it was a slugfest that was heard around the world, the death knell for any remaining sense of English football supremacy and a confirmation of the excellence of Gusztav Sebes’ side. It opened the most smug eyes to the new era of football and even in those days of free goals it was a result so unusual that talk of ‘6-3’ would conjure up images of Nandor Hidegkuti, the English hubris in the Wembley fog shredded.
Sunday’s 6-3 was, well, what exactly? Like the 1953 game, it by no means seemed a complete expression of the rift between the teams: the team that scored three should have simultaneously chastised the extent of the defeat and the great fortune of only having escaped with a three-pointer – Goal Margin.
Reading the 1953 accounts, hearing the accounts of those who played or were in it, is to get a glimpse of what it was like to witness a paradigm shift, the slow and then sudden realization that nothing more is how it was that everything you thought you knew needs to be reevaluated and recalibrated. Sunday had none of that.
Even at 4-0 before half-time it looked like City could go ahead and hit double digits – the names of Adcock, Stewart and White, scorers of hat-tricks in City’s 10-1 win over Huddersfield in 1987, seemed to make for a time to whisper around the Etihad – what stood out was less how devastating City was or how chaotic United were than how routine it all felt. City are so much better than United; why shouldn’t they eviscerate them that way?
This is modern football when big goals are the order of the day. This is City, who average five goals per league home game. This is United, who have conceded four or more goals in five of their last ten away games in the league. This is Erling Haaland, who has averaged 1.75 goals per league game since joining City, which is 16.67% more than at the 2002 Africa Cup of Nations per game. At home he has an average of 2.25, which is higher than the last five Cups of Nations, Italia 90 and Euro 2016.
There were as many City hat-tricks in nine minutes of the second half as in the history of the game, but Erik ten Hag, it’s safe to assume, didn’t drive home and bury his head under the pillow for hours like Alex Ferguson did afterwards in 1989 he lost the derby 5-1.
Even after City’s 6-1 win at Old Trafford in 2011 – a game that signaled the shift in the balance of power in Manchester – the same shock was not felt, even if United played with 10 men for most of the second half scored three very late goals to add emphasis.
That’s just the way things are now; 6-3 isn’t even an unusual result anymore: it’s the third time City have won it at the Etihad since the start of last season.
On the one hand, it’s exciting. Pep Guardiola is a brilliant coach, he leads brilliant players and they play brilliant football. The third, fourth and fifth City goals were gently stunning in their own way. No objective lover of the game could not feel at least a little uplifted by the levels it is now running on.
And yet, and yet… it’s impossible not to think about what has become of the game. Given that United have spent more than City putting together these squads, this is perhaps an odd time to be talking about a balanced competition. You can have a foreign owner who, whatever their motives for buying the club, put their management in charge of people who know what they are doing, appoint a great manager and create the conditions to produce fascinating football. And you can have overseas owners unsuspectingly shifting from big plan to big plan, always vulnerable to the distraction of a glittering past reputation, to create the kind of chaos Ten Hag is trying to extricate United from.
But there is something deeper here that goes well beyond the Etihad or Manchester or even the Premier League. This is a world where one club dominates in Germany (and it took what is widely seen as an almighty crisis for Bayern to be two points off the top of the Bundesliga), one in France, two in Spain (and one of them is flirting with a financial disaster) and one dominated in Italy before making an unprecedented series of horrific recruiting decisions. It’s a world of grotesque inequality.
City have won four of their last five titles. They have scored 20 goals in four home league games this season. The question English football needs to ask is: are they doing it because of the unique gifts of this particular manager and group of players (and perhaps the ineptitude or questionable priorities of certain other owners who might compete financially)? Is this a golden age like Arsenal in the 30s, Liverpool in the 80s or United in the 90s that will be hailed as such for decades to come?
Or is something more insidious at work, a financial determinism that undermines football by relegating football itself to foreign policy goals and profit?
A world where 6-3 wins doesn’t feel exceptional isn’t comfortable.
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