For the first time in five years, the English Premier League trophy will not be paraded through the streets of Manchester come season’s end. It’s still possible that champions-elect Chelsea will make a complete mess of the remaining matches, but that is not going to happen, no matter how much we would all love to see José Mourinho lose his shit and start crying conspiracy. As such, Sunday’s derby between Manchesters United and City has no bearing on the title race, which hasn’t been the case for quite some time. In fact, the Manchester derby probably won’t even have much bearing on The Race To Fourth Place, since Liverpool and Tottenham have both shat the bed in recent weeks. Instead of trophies or European qualification, these two local rivals are battling for something far more important: The Narrative.
The Narrative is a funny thing; funny as in it’s usually media-driven, reactionary bullshit that fails to apply even a modicum of perspective. At various points in the season, Chelsea was the GREATEST TEAM EVER (*cringe*), Manchester City was definitely not bottling its title defense yet again (it did), Arsenal was making a late title charge (don’t do this to yourselves, Gooners), and Louis van Gaal (right) was just a Dutch David Moyes with a dusty résumé (he’s not). Even “the most exciting top four race in years” has boiled down to the usual suspects with the most money and best players.
The Manchester rivals will likely finish within a few points of each other, and the difference between finishing third and fourth in the league for clubs of their size will amount to just a few couple of bucks in prize money and a couple of Champions League qualifiers in August. So why the fuss? Because NARRATIVE, that’s why.
In a reversal from the teams’ last meeting in November, Sunday’s game features two clubs that seem to be heading in opposite directions. United, after bumbling its way through most of the season, has finally clicked into gear. City, after briefly threatening to call Chelsea’s coronation into question, is now a shambles. Van Gaal, through either luck or design, is now playing his best players in their best positions, and by George, it is working. Genius! Down the road, Manuel Pellegrini is finds his tactics being called into question, and it’s the Chilean rather the Dutchman who has been increasingly criticized for his stubbornness.
As silly and premature as it was, when United was at its clueless worst, there were some who wondered whether van Gaal would still be in a job at the end of the season. And although he has hardly been faultless in his time at Old Trafford, the idea that he should be sacked seems even more absurd now. Pellegrini (above), once seen as a clear upgrade on Roberto Mancini, is now seeing his team’s current form compared to his predecessor’s last days on the City bench. While City’s current malaise lacks the drama of Mancini’s ugly break-up (don’t expect any photos to emerge of Pellegrini choking David Silva in training), the parallels are still there. The team is playing limp and uninspiring soccer, and there’s a sense that Pellegrini, although more well-liked than Mancini, has gone stale.
Van Gaal, on the other hand, looks invigorated. He has repeatedly stated that the reason for United’s improved form is that his players now understand what is required of them in his system. That may or not be true — perhaps playing the in-form Ander Herrera and Juan Mata instead of the largely dreadful Ángel Di María and Robin van Persie did the trick — but the proof is in the pudding. A series of impressive victories means that Mad Louis can say whatever the hell he wants.
Despite the mixed bag of the Red Devils’ 2014 summer spending, they look like a team equipped to go from strength to strength at the end of the season. The squad has a solid core and is expected to spend big in the transfer market yet again. It looks like a team potentially on the brink of something great. That is in stark contrast to the Blues, who look like a team that needs a complete rebuild this summer, perhaps starting with the manager. City’s squad has an aging spine, and it is now significantly hampered by the restraints of Financial Fair Play.
Not only are these two Manchester powers moving in opposite directions at the end of this season, but they may continue that trend for some time. Is that a gross overstatement of something that is essentially “team in good form plays team in not-so-good form?” Of course it is. But what do you expect? This is The Narrative.