In the modern era of the Manchester derby, not many times will City be there for the taking. At full-time on Sunday, it really did feel like United had missed the opportunity to record a consecutive derby victory over their noisy neighbours. As it turned out, both teams tactically cancelled themselves out and matched each others' problems infront of goal.
Louis van Gaal raised eye-brows by picking Antonio Valencia ahead of Matteo Darmian. The thinking was no doubt that whereas Darmian is an all round better defender, the Ecuadorian is a better 1v1 defender. Therefore in a bid to avoid making the same error as he did at the Emirates when Sanchez tore through Darmian regularly, Valencia was tasked with keeping Raheem Sterling quiet. It worked a treat! Decisions such as these are often forgotten in context but it was at least comforting to see that van Gaal did not make the same mistake twice.
Where United were thought-less up top, City were toothless. As such, most of the derby went by with nothing to write home about. Morgan Schneiderlin for United and Fernandinho for City emerged as the most important if not best players for their clubs. It was one of those big games where neither side won an evenly matched midfield battle. The result of such a rare phenomenon is often a draw in the absence of a huge slice of luck.
Turns out, United were just a little short of it when Jesse Lingard's late improvised shot was parried onto the crossbar by Joe Hart and Chris Smalling was desperately unlucky to have his close range drive pushed wide by a super save from the England goalkeeper.
For the neutral arm chair viewer, it turned out to be a case of what might have been if both sides had competent strikers through the middle. City were spared the threat of Anthony Martial up top but even so found him a nuisance out wide. On the other scale, given Sergio Aguero's derby record (8 goals in 4 seasons), it was essentially a day off for Chris and Phil taking turns to mark Wilfried Bony.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Wayne Rooney is yet again forms the debate of what was not good about United. Louis van Gaal has a problem on his hands. He might be sick of the questions about his captain but it's reached a point where even his most ardent fans are struggling to find a case for his defence.
This time, the groans could be heard all around Old Trafford when the England captain lost possession or made an underwhelming pass. If you asked Bacary Sagna and Vincent Kompany how they fared against Anthony Martial and Wayne Rooney respectively, the contrast in answers would just about sum it up. Indeed Kompany even found time to leave Rooney and go out wide and cut Martial in half. From the moment the City captain got himself booked in the first half for that tackle, you wondered if he would last the 90 if Martial been moved up top to cause him problems with his pace.
For Louis van Gaal, sticking with his captain amidst this storm is admirable but with each passing week, it increasingly appears that United will win the league inspite of Rooney rather than because of him and lose the league because of him rather than lose it despite his best efforts.
Wayne's history of going through such spells have left the manager in a fix over whether to play him into form or
drop rest him for a couple of games and see how the team fares. Louis van Gaal appears to be going with Option A. Perhaps Rooney's form would go less under the radder with fans if the club didn't have a ready-made solution. The frustration is that the solution is right there in September's Player of the Month who was presented with his award ahead of kick-off.
I don't buy the idea that van Gaal doesn't have the stomach to drop his captain because he has dropped a World Player of the Year before, but I do believe that he has handed him every opportunity to recover his form and is holding on to the hope that he clicks into form soon. As the captain starts his fourth decade of his life, there are stark comparisons with players who started as early as 16 when they reached 30. Think Michael Owen. Think Fernando Torres. To name but only two players who became different as the mileage stacked up early.
Paul Scholes in mid-week after the CSKA Moscow game argued that Wayne needs quick players around him to make himself useful to the cause. On Wednesday he was either side of Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard. How quick are we talking exactly Paul?
Going forward, given the stance the manager has taken with Wayne, we can only rally behind because the circumstances are that United's destiny this season has been inter-twined with Wayne Rooney's form. The faster he recovers, the better for the club. So I guess this is the part where we all say ''Come on Wayne!''
In context, Sunday's result was not as bad as it felt. United's excellent defensive record at Old Trafford was supposed to come under scrutiny but they had the measure of the title favourites throughout. United remain at just one goal conceded at home since the season started. Not bad.
It is already shaping up to be a three way early tussle for the title between City, Arsenal and ourselves. Results like yesterday mean that it will be results against the 'lesser' sides in the division that will separate the teams. City for instance know they've got the fodder of Norwich City and Aston Villa to come whilst Arsenal have what on paper seems like a clear run of games until December when they face City. It's squarely up to United to match that consistency against the also rans of the league.
For instance, both City and Arsenal win at Crystal Palace earlier this season. United have to match that result this weekend if they are to keep in touch with the summit. Only then does Sunday's result become a good one.
Labels: ANTHONY MARTIAL, JESSE LINGARD, LOUIS VAN GAAL, MORGAN SCHNEIDERLIN, REVIEWS, WAYNE ROONEY