If any player sums up the impact made by Pep Guardiola and Manchester City in this Premier League season it was the man who won this latest, emphatic victory for his side.
Last season, Nicolas Otamendi was a by-word for the reckless, free spending of the new City, fuelled by petrodollars and unable to judge a good player, let alone pay market price for him.
In this campaign, Otamendi has been transformed into an integral part of Guardiola’s system and, after 16 months of his intense, demanding management style, the Argentinian centre-half, like all his teammates, is responding in spectacular fashion.
Guardiola was greeted with suspicion, ridicule sometimes, during his trophy-less debut season in English football, but none of his rivals are laughing now. When Nicolas Otemandi looks like a world-beater, something special is happening with Manchester City.
“The personality to play here at Old Trafford is what I want,” he said. “We can play this way in England. People said we couldn’t play the way we did in Barcelona in England but it is possible and we did it.
“I knew that last season. Always I believed we could do it. Everyone can play how they want, that’s why football is so beautiful. I’m happy to go to Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford and to beat them in this way.
“This win means a lot, in the way we played, for our confidence, but in three days we go to Swansea in the winter time, three days later we play Tottenham. We are going to face a lot of difficulties. In December it’s impossible to be champions but it’s good for us.”
Yesterday, Otamendi was the unlikely match winner, given the array of attacking talent in his team’s ranks, hooking in a clinical finish from six yards on 54 minutes after United had failed to deal with David Silva’s free kick.
Worse than that, it was actually Romelu Lukaku who gifted City that goal, hacking Silva’s cross directly into a group of his teammates, allowing the ball to break for Otamendi to score his fifth goal of the season.
If anything summed up a miserable afternoon for Jose Mourinho and United, this was it. The sight of their out-of-sorts £100m striker serving up an assist for City’s winning goal.
Lukaku would have the chance to make amends, and claim a second equaliser for United, six minutes from time when he slid in to meet Anthony Martial’s cross, only to see Ederson make a stunning block with his face, the Brazilian keeper somehow keeping out Juan Mata’s follow-up effort too.
However, a point for United would have been an unjust result. That late chance aside, the only other time they looked remotely capable of scoring, they did so, through Marcus Rashford’s equaliser on the stroke of half-time.
Marcos Rojo swung over a cross which Otamendi failed to clear with a poor header — reverting to his form of last season — and Fabian Delph was also at fault as he allowed Rashford the freedom to steer home.
City had been much the better team, but had only held the lead for two minutes when Rashford struck.
The opener had come from another set-piece, this time a De Bruyne corner, which Lukaku and Otamendi challenged for with the ball falling kindly for Silva. The Spanish striker was not going to miss from that situation and even David de Gea had no hope of blocking his close-range finish.
Half-time brought a quandary for Guardiola, with injury-prone skipper Vincent Kompany reporting an injury and unable to continue. The City manager’s decision proved a masterstroke as he brought on Ilkay Gundogan, adding yet more attacking legs to City’s midfield, while moving Fernandinho back into the centre of defence.
Once the winner came, within 10 minutes of the restart, Guardiola was able to take off striker Gabriel Jesus, bring on Eliaquim Mangala to take Fernandinho’s spot in defence, and push the Brazilian back into his customary midfield position.
It was a snapshot of the sort of versatility and tactical musical chairs that will, surely, see this City team win the league title at a canter.
Firstly, however, there was the occasional glimmer of hope for United from a series of half-chances, with Lukaku blasting over from outside the area, Rashford curling a free-kick over and seeing Ederson make a save from his later effort.
Even before Ederson’s superb, late double save, there were loud appeals for a penalty, as Ander Herrera went down under the slightest contact from Otamendi, though replays suggested referee Michael Oliver had got it right in cautioning the United man for simulation instead of awarding the spot kick.
Naturally, there were other chances for the league leaders, especially as United pressed towards the end.
Gundogan rolled the ball across an open net, De Gea made an excellent stop from De Bruyne and substitute Bernardo Silva showed why he is struggling for regular minutes at City by missing a couple of one-on-one breaks.
Predictably, however, there was little in the way of praise coming from Mourinho, who chose to focus on his own team’s shortcomings rather than City’s superiority.
“They scored two very bad goals, two goals that is quite unbelievable to concede and, when you concede two goals like these in a match of this dimension, you feel bad, because now you are all going to speak about what they did well and what they are good at,” said Mourinho.
“And at the end of the day what they are good at they were not good at and they scored two goals out of nothing. They were two easy goals.”
However, they were two goals, regardless of their quality, that have lifted City an important step closer their dream of a league title.
De Gea 6; Valencia 5, Smalling 5, Rojo 6 (Lindelof 46,6), Young 5; Herrera 5 (Mata 82,5), Matic 5; Rashford 6, Lingard 5 (Ibrahimovic 76,5), Martial 5; Lukaku 4. Subs: Jones, Romero, Shaw, McTominay.
Ederson 8; Walker 7, Kompany 5 (Gundogan 46,6), Otamendi 7, Delph 5; De Bruyne 7, Fernandinho 6, D Silva 9; Sterling 5, Jesus 5 (Mangala 58,6) Sane 6 (B Silva 88,5). Subs: Bravo, Danilo, Aguero, Zinchenko.
M Oliver 6