There are days when you really have to feel for managers. Yesterday was one of them. Managers can only offer instructions to players, but cannot execute them individually on the pitch. Louis van Gaal, two days from kick off, in the full glare of the media, said that he had warned his players to keep their heads and avoid red cards in the upcoming derby. It was the first time he had cautioned the players about discipline ahead of a fixture, probably because he worked out that all it would take us to get a result in the fixture was keeping 11 men on the field.
Come derby day, and it took Chris Smalling all of 28 minutes to forget that instruction. What is the manager supposed to do? Is he now a bad manager because a player couldn't follow a basic instruction? Now Smalling, like Evans and Jones cannot be held as inexperienced defenders anymore, not with all those games under their belts. We'll leave that tag to the likes of Luke Shaw, Tyler Blackett and Pady McNair...all of whom can be excused for school boy errors. Not Smalling. Quite how he redeems himself from this, only heaven knows because the only route available to him seems steep. Unless he returns from suspension in imperious form to negate the long term absence of Marcos Rojo, every error from now on could be a final page in his Manchester United career.
Individually, I thought Fellaini was the biggest let down on the day. He actually did a great job marshalling the midfield and supporting upfront but he failed to deliver on his biggest asset. Getting his head and or hair on to the ball. Accurately. Our best aerial chances fell to the right person and yet he failed to get them on target. I've loved his new role in the first team, but I think he needs that one chance one goal instict to make him the cult hero he can be. I would gladly ignore all his antics on the pitch if he could keep making lethal use of his head and chest in ways that benefitted us at West Brom and against Chelsea last week.
I also found it pleasing that in a week against the most dificult opposition we shall face this season, we let in just the odd goal with a defence that every pundit freshly criticises every matchday as if to suggest we might not have gotten the point the week before.
It's unfortunate that on a day when City were there for the taking, an individual mistake cost us the game. That the 10 men that remained on the pitch managed to restore pride to the red half of the City is testament to what could have been. Make no mistake, this is not to suggest that we've turned a corner, but if you can't decipher the difference between this fixture last season and this season then you might as well stop reading this from this point. The issue most Reds had with the previous regime was an abject lack of will to fight even in periods of adversity. The last few games are underscored by a resilience to fight to the death that was almost non-existent last season.
The danger though is continuously looking back on last season as a measure of success. We finished 7th last term and although 6th would be an improvement, the target has to be much higher given the level of investment. 1 point from the top 2 is not the return we expected, but we can make up for that if we go on a long overdue run now. If we consider Liverpool and Arsenal within our means, then with the right focus and attitude, we could sweep all between now and Christmas. The opportunity is still there to drastically improve our season. The question is whether we can take it with both hands. I hope we do. The performances in the last couple of games have added to the belief that this United side is not so far from being the finished article. We seem to be just that one crucial step away. Except that it is a crucial step and until we make it, positions such as 10th place will continue to feature throughout the season.
Therefore, in the spirit of bouncing back, a great result at home to Palace is now a must.