Not even close. Not even close to being close. If there is an accurate measure of Manchester City’s domestic dominance over the past two seasons, and more specifically that combined 50-point lead over the creaky 1990s tribute act from across the way, it is perhaps the sight of Old Trafford at the final whistle of this room-temperature 2-0 derby victory.
As the home crowd filed out in added time you could see the bones of this ground open up, its clanky iron clavicles exposed to the air. The only noise came from the sky blue corner where City’s fans sang “this city is ours” and – a little prematurely: the bigger test of Burnley away is yet to come – a few late rounds of “Campeones”.
Even the cheers and hugs from the City players at the final whistle were insultingly low key, demeaningly lacking in desperation.
Fronting up as ever, Ole Gunnar Solskjær came out to stand with players and applaud the stands. But it was still hard to shake the feeling the team in the sky-blue shirts had spent their evening in a kind of footballing Pompeii, the club that time forgot, stuck cranking out the same jangly playlist, staring back at the past while the present ebbs away.
None of this is Solskjær’s fault. He is simply the latest hired hand to find himself staring into that vacuum of leadership and planning, a job that is simply too big to fix from the factory floor. In Solskjær’s case there has been something particularly painful about watching that retro-schtick, the obsession with the shadow triumphs of the past, go from a source of inspiration to a source of stasis.
At times in the buildup to this game, as the manager looked to drive this team forward by taking them deep into the past, dragging a bunch of 20-something multimillionaires off to the training ground where he used to lark about with Keano and Becks, there was a sense of a man imprisoned rather than empowered by his connection to the good times.
Whereas the present seems far more prosaic. United were poor but they also tried their hardest. A midfield of Fred and Andreas Pereira, shielding a back three in which Mateo Darmian made a bafflingly-timed first start under Solskjær: this was never likely to challenge City for more than an adrenal opening half hour.
United were poor but the levels against which this team of unexceptional players must be judged are also a problem. On BT Sport’s pre-match coverage Roy Keane, who seems these days to have only one emotional gear – violent, appalled disdain – had described United’s players as leopards, wolves, snakes, or whatever unflattering animal analogy had entered his consciousness at that moment.
At the final whistle Keane seemed gripped with a cold white gleeful rage, unable to stop himself jabbing at the wound again and again.
And yet, none of this is terminal. There is clearly a way forward but it will involve a great deal more successful input and expertise from those charged with recruitment. Not to mention some coherent, unifying sense of how the team intend to play.
The players had been harangued before this game for not being as good as they might have been, accused of not trying or caring enough. But whose fault is this really? Who assembled this apparently random group of men?
It is an anomaly of United’s state that while managers come and go the one ever-present through five years of post-Fergie stasis remains in place. What more do you have to do as a chief executive of an ailing powerhouse? How many poor hires, how many bodged refits before you become the problem?
Perhaps the most disappointing part of City’s almost total dominance was the fact they were tense at the start. As another pass was very slightly overhit Pep Guardiola could be seen sinking to his knees, the skirts of his woolly grey cardigan-coat grazing the turf.
City are set up to play without tension. Guardiola’s entire vision of how the game should be played is about its absence, about finding those frictionless patterns.
Watching something else happen to them was briefly gripping but it couldn’t last. City began to keep the ball, opening up those painful green spaces on the flanks. At which point: enter Bernardo Silva, who took a breath and produced the most wonderfully effortless finish to open the scoring on 54 minutes.
The introduction of Leroy Sané had pushed Bernardo infield. United did not adjust in time. City’s player of the second half of the season took the ball with space in front of him, used Luke Shaw as a shield – an excellent choice in itself – and curled a lovely, easy shot inside the post.
Sané added another 12 minutes later, shooting through David de Gea who moved towards it with his feet. It was by the end all too easy, a late-season title hurdle that seemed to shrink the closer it got.
And yet these things are never terminal. Even now there is a chance for United to finish in the top four, which would presumably be vital to their recruitment plans.
If there is one lesson from this derby defeat, and from the contortions of the last few years, it is that to close the gap and rebuild properly will involve a departure from the past; not the urge to fetishise it endlessly.