It would be a stretch to say this was a triumph of pragmatism over idealism because, as Paul Heckingbottom’s side demonstrated countless times throughout a match which lifted them to sixth in the Championship, they are capable of producing some eye-catching stuff themselves.
The difference was, with Morgan Gibbs-White, George Baldock and of course the peerless Billy Sharp all finding the back of the net as Russell Martin’s men were swatted aside in almost contemptuous fashion, the moves United piece together actually seem to have a point.
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City’s blind faith in the methods he is trying to implement is admirable. But confronted by a team which is growing in confidence, self-belief and - with the six foot five inch tall Charlie Goode making his debut during the closing stages - stature, it was also hopelessly naive.
United, who saw Gibbs-White claim his second and their fourth of the afternoon late on, were simply streetwise; stretching their unbeaten run to eight games ahead of Wednesday’s meeting with Blackburn Rovers.
Whether or not Baldock, whose first strike since December 2019 was definitely worth waiting for, takes part in that remains to be seen. But the sight of the defender walking gingerly down the tunnel after suffering a knock was possibly the only low point of the afternoon for Heckingbottom, who professed his delight afterwards.
“That was excellent,” Heckingbottom said, without bothering to confirm if he was talking about the result, Baldock’s finish or possibly even both.
Johan Cruyff would have choked on his soused herring if anyone had dared to suggest as much in his presence. But in an era when some footballers and football’istas obsess more over possession stats than they do the final scoreline, it’s becoming increasingly common to hear coaches talk about winning without the ball.
Fathoming that Martin’s modus operandi meant patience would be a virtue for a United team which likes to try and overwhelm opponents, Heckingbottom suggested beforehand his team might have to do that here. Fortunately, this was one of those rare occasions when the 44-year-old’s judgement proved awry. Two quick-fire goals, including an absolute screamer from Baldock, put United in the driving seat before they’d even broken sweat. Were it not for a glaring miss by Gibbs-White, whose opener laid the platform for Heckingbottom’s eighth victory since taking charge in November, the match would have been over as a contest before half-time.
Still, City carried on playing exactly as they had been doing. Even though the sum total of their efforts, until Oliver Ntcham’s tame attempt during the closing stages of the opening period, amounted to a little bit of tiki-taka on the edge of their own box. The same box that, as the interval approached, Sharp surged into before powering home United’s third.
With City still attempting to action Plan A, the hosts continued to dominate. Oliver Norwood, whose superb pass had created Gibbs-White’s opener before Rhys Norrington-Davies’ centre was volleyed in by Baldock, inexplicably swept over after the visitors over-elaborated for the umpteenth time. But no matter as Gibbs-White had already stretched United’s advantage, prodding past Andy Fisher following Sharp’s lay-off.