Sunday’s Manchester derby truly lived up to its hype. It was fast-paced, exhilarating to watch, and filled with suspense up until the final whistle. Both of the giants from Manchester were truly desperate for a win this weekend: Manchester United for obvious reasons; their season has been one of few ups and many downs and, coming off of an impressive comeback draw with Chelsea last weekend, the Red Devils wanted nothing more than to continue that momentum onto the Etihad, home of the ‘noisy neighbours’.
Manchester City have had their own slump in form in recent games; the Champions League has not been kind to the Citizens, picking up only two points from their opening three games. Last Saturday of course they were defeated by West Ham, and in midweek were handed another loss at home to Newcastle in the Capital One Cup. So this weekend held a great deal of importance to both Manchester teams to reignite some form into their respective campaigns, oh, and the fact that this fixture has become one of the most fierce local derbies in English football didn’t help matters.
The game ended by a score of one to nil to the hosts, City, after an exhilarating edge-of-your-seat match that took the suspense down to the final whistle. Both teams were clearly up for it, and delivered one of the most exciting derbies in recent years. Defensive blunders, slick passing, wasted opportunities and a midfield conundrum all make for some excellent talking points on the Manchester derby.
The first name on everyone’s lips at the end of the first half was Chris Smalling. If you were wearing red, you were probably looking at a second half thrashing thanks to a makeshift central defensive partnership and a ten-man team. If you were wearing blue, you’d have been heaping the praise on Smalling, and now feeling a lot more confident about second half success. Smalling was booked, and subsequently sent off less than ten minutes later, for two of the most unnecessary challenges to make in a game of football, much less a massive derby. Charging down Joe Hart and then later chasing down a challenge that was never there to be made shows a true lack of discipline when it comes to the big games, and for that, he, and United, were punished by being reduced to ten men. I don’t know what was running through his head, but if it sounded to me a bit like: ‘let’s give Michael Carrick a run in defence in perhaps our most important game to date.’ To his credit, Carrick came on in place of Adnan Januzaj and performed excellently, as one would expect someone of his experience would. But the fact that United were put in that position, to make yet another change to their very inconsistent defensive partnerships, made Smalling the enemy of the night for the Red Devils.
To make matters worse, Marcos Rojo went off with what looked like a serious blow from a crunching challenge by Martín Demichelis in the 56th minute, allowing young Patrick McNair to make his Manchester derby debut. One more change in a central defensive partnership won’t hurt, right? This change of course was unavoidable, but it puts the onus on Louis Van Gaal, and perhaps Michael Carrick, to come up with a solution for the ever-present Man United defensive injury list against Crystal Palace next weekend.
Manchester City, for all of their pressing in the second half, could not find the back of the net more than once, albeit the one time that it mattered. The constant knocking at United’s door was a wake-up call to Chelsea that City is most definitely on the hunt for their title retention. A passing move that could split the best of defences was initiated by Yaya Touré, who sent a ball through to Gaël Clichy, who provided the one-time cross to the Premier League’s new top-scorrer, Sergio Agüero to slot home for the advantage.
What I found interesting in the build up to the goal, which was most certainly coming, was the ease with which City passed the ball around United’s midfield. They were so comfortable that Wayne Rooney had to come into a deep lying midfield role to try and get something, anything, started for United in attack. The midfield trio that United have in their setup right now includes Daley Blind, Marouane Fellaini, and the aforementioned Rooney in an advanced role. Rooney wasn’t able to make the most of his attacking ‘number 10’ position, as Blind and Fellaini had their work cut out for them dealing with Touré and Fernando, a partnership that is looking quite formidable in the middle of the park. There was simply no way getting around them in a ‘2v2’ situation, and for that, the boys in blue came out on top.
Football is obviously a complex game but one thing remains certain no matter what formation you adopt into your team: if you can control the midfield, you can control the game, and if you can control the game, then three points will be coming your way at the end of ninety minutes.
United simply does not have the central midfield capable of dominating a match, at least not on Sunday anyway. Ander Herrera, injured though he may be, can be that commanding central player, capable of initiating a cutting pass that will fall to the likes of Rooney, Di María, van Persie, and so on. LVG will be hoping for a swift recovery for the Spaniard, who can relieve Rooney of having to pick up the defensive duties on top of his preferred attacking mentality.
The Manchester derby is one of those games that usually decides the title; in recent years it has been. This year, however, it allowed both Manchester clubs to regain a bit of lost form. Both did, as a matter fact. United look like a reinvigorated team; they proved it by putting up a real fight against a Man City side that just would not stop the attack. What will be key for United now is getting some solid, consistent, defensive order to the team, to aid their style of playing from the back, a system that worked so well in the beginning of the match, up until the unfortunate red card. City showed us that the title will be a two-horse race this year. Southampton notwithstanding (they sit second, above third place City), City will push Chelsea to the brim for the title, and it may come down to a fight between two of the Premier League’s most in-form strikers: top scorer Sergio Agüero, who is one goal to the good of second place Diego Costa of Chelsea. These two men could truly have a say in which shade of blue the Premier League ribbons will be donned on the trophy this year.