But in truth, this contest wasn’t decided by tactics, systems or one team’s failure to execute a gameplan. Because both seemed content to throw caution to the wind and fly through it by the seat of their pants.
Condemning United to only their third defeat in 17 Championship outings under Heckingbottom’s command, City prevailed because while the outcome was still in doubt they remembered how to defend. After taking the lead through Sander Berge, United didn’t. Indeed had it not been for goalkeeper Wes Foderingham during the closing stages, the final outcome would have been a whole lot worse.
“He was our man of the match,” Heckingbottom admitted, before confessing: “That tells a story in itself.”
City’s strikes - Callum O’Hare netting twice and Viktor Gyokeres and Matt Godden grabbing one apiece - were all well-crafted and clinically finished. But worryingly for Heckingbottom, whose men remain fifth for now, United unravelled in alarming fashion as the afternoon wore on.
“It was high-tempo, high-energy, as we expected,” Heckingbottom continued. “But when they got their second, they created whenever they went forward and we gave them a helping hand.”
The opening period of the first half was all about rapid counter-attacks, as each team sought to take advantage of the other’s determination to commit men forward. City, whose manager Mark Robins had tested positive for Covid-19 beforehand, shaded it in terms of numbers. But United created the finest opening, with only a sliding clearance from Jake Clarke-Salter preventing Billy Sharp from doing what he does best.
That, scoring goals, was something United and City did in quick succession as the action continued at a ridiculous pace. First Berge headed the visitors in front, after being picked out unmarked by the unerringly accurate Conor Hourihane. But Gyokeres quickly restored parity following a mistake by Jack Robinson. The centre-half’s positioning has been flawless in recent weeks. However, he badly misjudged the flight of Michael Rose’s Howitzer upfield which allowed the Swede a clear run towards Wes Foderingham’s net.
Hourihane and Gyokeres traded attempts. On the touchline, both sets of coaching staff scratched their heads as strategies went out of the window and the players simply ‘had a go.’ It might not have made pleasant viewing for Heckingbottom and Dennis Lawrence, minding the hosts’ technical area in Robins’ absence. But it certainly made for an absorbing spectacle, with Foderingham producing a smart block to deny Gustavo Hamer second before the interval.
He made another soon after the break, palming Gyokeres’ shot onto a post after he had beaten John Egan. O’Hare, however, was quicker to react than those supposedly tasked with protecting Foderingham and he prodded the ball home following an almighty scramble on the line.
Heckingbottom was still signalling for United to maintain their composure when City’s dynamic duo struck again; O’Hare sliding past Foderingham from close-range after Gyokeres had worked the opening on the edge of the six yard box.
Godden claimed City’s fourth when United’s rearguard disappeared again, with substitute Martyn Waghorn striking a post during added time.
“We needed every aspect,” Lawrence admitted afterwards, “To get a result like this against quality opponents.”