It is perhaps worth rewinding four years. The Manchester City Pep Guardiola inherited had finished 2015-16 twinned on points with their neighbours, both ending the season on 66, separated only by goal difference.
Now a gargantuan gulf may separate City from Liverpool but they do find themselves 15 points ahead of Manchester United. “I didn’t expect when I landed here to have this gap right now with United,” Guardiola said. “I never expected the distance against United in three or four seasons.”
It was 19 points in 2017-18, a colossal 32 last season and stands at 75 over the course of his reign. The balance of power in Manchester perhaps started moving with City’s 6-1 win at Old Trafford in 2011, but the shift has been more decisive in Guardiola’s reign.
He has a 100 per cent league record on United's turf – three visits, nine points – plus a Carabao Cup triumph in January. If there is an illogical element to a fixture where the away teams tend to do better, and United have twice tasted victory at the Etihad this season, it is nonetheless remarkable City have seven victories at Old Trafford in a decade.
Neighbours have pursued different paths. Guardiola is conscious that the label of big spenders is attached to City. The three most expensive signings made by Manchester clubs, however, were United’s moves for Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku and Harry Maguire, a player City had an interest in until his price rose to £80 million (Dh383m). City’s record signing is the cheaper Rodri. They have eschewed the model of signing superstars in favour of team-building.
As Guardiola noted, the 22 costliest buys ever were recruited by other clubs, United among them. “When it comes to expensive players we are ranking 23rd but the club has a bad reputation on that,” he said. “They say: 'That's just Man City spending money.' But of course it is not true. You just have to see the numbers. The important thing is to buy good players who fit in to the way you want to play.”
City’s best signings in recent years, whether Ederson or Aymeric Laporte, Bernardo Silva or Leroy Sane, Kevin de Bruyne or Raheem Sterling, have fitted their plan. There have been summers where they have divided their budget to strengthen multiple positions. Guardiola is unsure if the strategy will change to accommodate the biggest of buys.
“Manchester City didn't do that, but maybe in the future it will do it, so honestly right now I don't know,” he said. “It will depend on the market, the player we have, the players who stay, the players who are going to leave. Many, many things can be involved.”
The long read: One year after miracle in Paris, support for Solskjaer is strong but there is still work to be done
United have sought a change of approach in a different respect. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has brought a renewed emphasis on youth and a long-term plan. He is the only manager to record two away wins against Guardiola’s City and the Catalan is an admirer of his counterpart’s focus on the future, even though other results were rather more mixed.
But United’s executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward remained supportive, even when they dropped to 14th in a way that Guardiola applauds.
“Always I believe clubs and managers need time to build something,” he said. “Unfortunately, the results sometimes take the decision to break that process.
"I am not part of United but what I feel is that people believe in Ole and the comments from the board were stable. I think he is doing a really good job. It is not about the tactics sometimes, it is about [the feel], how the players follow the manager.”
His respect for United exacerbates City’s achievement in putting so much distance between clubs a mere five miles apart. “I have no doubts about the quality of United,” Guardiola said. “I appreciate a lot the manager. I think he represents United in an exceptional way and I think the players, when you analyse individually and collectively they are so good.”