Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial fired United into an early lead and although Nicolas Otamendi’s late reply set up a thrilling finale, the visitors held on for arguably the most impressive victory of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s 12-month reign.
Both United goals came in a breathless opening half-hour at Etihad Stadium, where they repeatedly carved open City’s creaking back-line to devastating effect.
Rashford opened the scoring from the spot after he was clumsily knocked over by Bernardo Silva, with the penalty awarded by video assistant referee Michael Oliver.
The in-form England striker, who has now scored 13 goals in his past 14 games for club and country, hit the bar moments later but United did not have to wait long to extend their lead.
United’s next attack saw Daniel James find Anthony Martial on the right of the area, and he had space to turn and squeeze his shot inside Ederson’s near post.
City had never trailed by two goals so early in a home league game since Pep Guardiola took charge in 2016 and their fans were left in stunned silence as United’s supporters celebrated noisily at the other end of the stadium.
While the home side finally began to get a grip on the game after that, especially in midfield, the damage was done.
City had repeated penalty appeals for United handballs turned down by referee Anthony Taylor and VAR before the break, while Gabriel Jesus wastefully headed a Kevin de Bruyne cross wide.
United continued to defend deep after the break but City struggled to create meaningful chances and Otamendi’s header from a Mahrez corner could not rescue them from their fourth league defeat of the season.
The game was marred by allegations of racist abuse towards United midfielder Fred in the second half, while there were also reports of objects being thrown at him from the stands.
Solskjaer silences his critics
United’s best results this season have been against the leading clubs, but before this they had all come at Old Trafford. Until now, Norwich were the only side they had beaten on the road.
Solskjaer’s side set that record straight in scintillating fashion here, tearing City apart in the early stages when they could conceivably have scored two or three goals more.
Ederson was the only reason that did not happen, making superb saves from Daniel James, Jesse Lingard and Rashford with the score at 0-0.
When United did take the lead, the way they controlled the game was also impressive – conceding possession and territory to their hosts, but limiting their shooting chances.
It was an excellent all-round performance and United’s players clearly enjoyed it too, celebrating with the away fans at the final whistle.
It is less than a week since Solskjaer’s future as United boss was being seriously questioned but back-to-back wins over Tottenham and now their neighbours have offered an emphatic response to his critics.
City’s flaws exposed again
While City’s midweek win over Burnley saw them at their electric best going forward, this was a reminder of the defensive flaws that have cost them so often this season.
With Rodri and the rest of City’s midfield unable to track United’s players when they surged forward, their backline was left embarrassingly exposed again and again in the early stages.
Angelino was given a torrid time by James down City’s left and both he and Rodri were guilty of standing off Martial when he fired home United’s second goal from that side of their area.
True, Guardiola was again left frustrated by important VAR decisions going against his team – particularly when Fred blocked Kyle Walker’s cross with his hand just before the break – and he had a long discussion with fourth official Mike Dean about it during the interval.
But his own side’s shortcomings were painfully obvious and right now it is hard to make a case for City clinching a third successive title, even if Liverpool’s form fell away.
Man of the match – Marcus Rashford (Manchester United)
‘We will remember this one’ – what they said:
Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer: “We will remember this one – we look so dangerous when we get he ball and go forward against arguably the best team in the world.
“They are an unbelievable team and to get a result and defend like we did and create as many chances… we should have been three or four up but for some good goalkeeping. It’s hard to take the ball off them. They can football teams to death but with the pace and threat we have, we look dangerous every time we go forward.
“It does not matter where you win the ball it’s that you are positive when you get it. The team shape was spot on, but individually they had to dig deep against some of the best players in the world. That’s part of the game.”
On reports of racist abuse: “I’ve seen it on the video, it was Jesse and Fred and the chap must be ashamed of himself. It’s unacceptable and I hope he will not be watching any football any more.”
Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola: “Yes we lost but I congratulate my team: my players were fantastic, we are a fantastic team. They are so fast, so quick and sometimes when you lose the ball it is more difficult. We tried, we got to the last third many, many times and they can run. Maybe a bit more than usual.”
On the title race: “We have to try to continue; there are many things to play for. It’s difficult because the opponents are on an incredible run winning 15 games out of 16.”
On reports of racism: “Of course [it’s not acceptable]. I think the club are making a statement and I support that.”
Pep’s worst points return – the stats
- In English top-flight history, no side has ever gone on to win the title after being as many as 14 points behind the top side at the end of a day’s games.
- Manchester United are unbeaten in their past five Premier League games (W3 D2), winning consecutive league matches for the first time since March.
- This is Pep Guardiola’s worst points return after the first 16 matches of a top-flight season in his managerial career (32 pts).
- Guardiola has lost two home league games in a single season for only the third time in his managerial career (also 2014-15 with Bayern Munich and 2008-09 with Barcelona).
- United’s Anthony Martial has been directly involved in 10 goals in his past 13 Premier League starts (6 goals, 4 assists).
- Marcus Rashford has scored 13 goals in 21 appearances in all competitions this season – equalling his best goalscoring return for United in a single season (13 goals in 47 apps in 2018-19 and 13 goals in 52 apps in 2017-18).
- Rashford has been directly involved in 15 goals in his past 14 games in all competitions for Manchester United and England (13 goals, 2 assists).
- United have both taken (8) and scored (4) more penalties in the Premier League this season than any other side.
Manchester City head for Croatia to play Dinamo Zagreb in their final group fixture in the Champions League on Wednesday (17:55 GMT). They are already through to the last 16 as guaranteed group winners.
United switch their attention to Europe in midweek too, hosting Dutch side AZ Alkmaar (20:00) in the Europa League on Thursday. They are also already through to the knockout stage, but need to avoid defeat in order to finish top of Group L.
Both teams play their next Premier League game on Sunday 15 December. United are at home to Everton (14:00 GMT) while City are away at Arsenal (16:30 GMT).