* It was a Manchester derby dubbed English football’s most expensive match, yet wholly failed to live up to even the smallest billing. Both defences bossed the game, unusual in the Premier League, but had their tasks made far easier by underwhelming attacking units.
Manuel Pellegrini will be happy with his point, but the injuries to Sergio Aguero and David Silva did not stop him from fielding a front four which cost over £150million in transfer fees. The options in reserve of the Premier League’s biggest clubs are remarkably unconvincing.
For United, however, more reason to be glum despite shading the match. With no injuries amongst his offensive players, this was Louis van Gaal’s first-choice attack, but the only player to have a shot on target was Chris Smalling. A chance to go back to the top of the league (or at least level on points with Arsenal) was passed up without much discernible endeavour. For a (literal) balls-out manager, United have been remarkably ‘safety-first’ in their approach this season.
Most crucially of all, this was a match that provided only disappointment after the significant hype. It was not just the excitement that was low, it was even lacking in the basic skill department. The final ball was atrocious, simple passes failed to find their men and the standard of crossing from both sides was worse than woeful.
The first and most obvious conclusion to draw is that, on this evidence, Arsenal really could win the title.
* The elephant in the room is whether Van Gaal set the tone for such a display with his Friday insistence that his United side were the underdogs for the game.
“When you look at the facts they are first and we are third. There’s a goal difference, a point difference, and they are first so they are the favourite, I think.”
Given the absence of key players for the visitors, it was a ludicrous statement to make. Before the game Jamie Carragher made the predictable comparison to the words of David Moyes, but it’s a fair point. If the words were used to pile pressure on Pellegrini, it really didn’t work.
“We created more chances but didn’t finish them and that’s disappointing. You need to win these derby games for the fans,” said Van Gaal after the game.”
And for your own title hopes, Louis. Van Gaal has spent the sort of money that makes success of paramount importance, but a little entertainment wouldn’t go amiss. It’s thin on the ground.
* The home side started the brighter, finding their passing rhythm from the off as City looked rattled. Yet within five minutes United had resorted to first-half type under Van Gaal, playing within themselves and lacking cohesion in the final third. No surprises for guessing why, and I’ll come on to woeful Wayne later.
Whereas City at least attempted to take the game to their hosts in the first period, United were more than happy to utilise a ‘wait and see’ strategy. It’s painful to watch at times.
0 – United v City is only the 2nd PL game this season not to have a shot on target in the 1st half, along with United v Liverpool. Blanks.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) October 25, 2015
This was the first time that United have not attempted a shot in a Premier League first half since 2003/04, Opta also tweeted. My eyes, my eyes.
* When Wayne Rooney scored at Goodison last weekend, people queued up to tell us why, actually, this is why you don’t write off the man. The last two games have demonstrated that, in his current guise, disappointment is the rule, not exception.
It’s not just that Rooney is offering nothing to United’s attack; he is hampering it significantly. Anthony Martial, Juan Mata and Ander Herrera can do all they can to take attacks so far, but at some point their team-mate needs to get involved. Then all promise turns to dust.
It is as if Rooney is playing with lead weights under his shirt, labouring around the opposition half like a 35-year-old League Two striker telling everyone who’ll listen that he’s still got it. He completed nine passes in the first half, and gave the ball away seven times. There is an increasingly familiar Old Trafford groan reserved for a Rooney pass straight into touch. It is becoming the soundtrack of his decline.
* The bizarre thing about Rooney is just how much goodwill he retains from those within the game – he is effectively immune to criticism.
Here is his game in numbers: No shots on target. No chances created. A passing accuracy of 55% (the lowest on the pitch). Lost possession 28 times (highest on the pitch). One touch in the opposition penalty area.
Yet the only reaction from Gary Neville was to twice praise Rooney for his defensive work, while Martin Tyler remarked that he was “defensively responsible at 30”. For a striker, that should be the ultimate damnation by faint praise.
The person with the most faith is Van Gaal, who continues to start Rooney to the detriment of the team. Memphis Depay has struggled to settle in during his early months in England, but at least with Depay, age provides reason for patience.
More importantly, playing Depay on the left would allow Martial to operate as a central striker. For a manager who demands movement from his forwards, it is difficult to see how dropping Rooney wouldn’t assist United’s creativity. Van Gaal must surely now be at least considering that option.
In terms of this game, the biggest crime was that Rooney stayed on until the final whistle. He may once have been United’s magic man, the player who could conjure something out of nothing to win you the game, but that time has passed. He was a 90-minute passenger.
“Sir, I have to talk every week about Rooney,” said United’s manager to a journalist in his post-match press conference. “Why? I don’t give any opinion. Sick of it. You have your opinion, write it.” Not as sick as some United fans are at the free ride given to the captain.
* When having faith that Rooney could rediscover his greatness, bear this question in mind: What did he excel at?
The three most obvious responses to that question are pace, power and positive aggression. Not only do all now look lost, but these are impossible characteristics to switch on and off. You can’t just decide to have more pace or add ten times more power, and the aggression in Rooney’s game has been reduced to swearing in the direction of the officials. He has become a parody of the jaded striker, a brightness dulled by the rigours of his career. He is the old fighter still stepping into the ring but now being punched from rope to rope.
So the question to Rooney’s backers is this: What are you waiting for? Rooney isn’t naturally fit enough to regain his missing athleticism. He’s played too many career games to find the effervescence associated with his early years at United. He has never been the type of striker who you would expect to redefine his style in order to prolong his career.
It’s all very sad, but there’s a shell of a player where Wayne Rooney used to be. Van Gaal is one of few who must still have faith, and even that is waning.
* Why does Yaya Toure avoid being booked for his trip on Rooney just because the game is only four minutes old? Yet Fernandinho gets one for exactly the same foul ten minutes later?
That type of foul typically (and rightly) results in a yellow card because of the effect it has in illegally halting a dangerous attack. That doesn’t lessen just because it is early in the game. Goals count the same whatever the time on the clock, so fouls should too.
One can understand why a referee would want to be lenient towards the start of a match, but that doesn’t make it right. The fault lies in the player committing the offence.
* It’s something that gets regularly repeated, but the refusal to penalise fouls after a pass, cross or shot has been completed is a weird anomaly in football. Being late in the challenge is supposed to be seen as A Bad Thing, yet making a pass gives you licence to be clattered by a defender.
The first half had its own example. Kevin de Bruyne crossed the ball, and was then fouled by Chris Smalling. If the Belgian had kept hold of the ball and the same thing had happened, a penalty would have been awarded. So why does De Bruyne’s action change things?
* “Maybe it’s rustiness,” said Martin Tyler as Vincent Kompany dived into a challenge on the right touchline and was deservedly booked. If that’s true, Kompany is a piece of metal left out in the rain for the last three years.
Manchester City’s captain is not a bad defender, but there are few central defenders at top clubs who learn less from their mistakes than Kompany. The charge out to the side of the pitch, dragged out of position by an eagerness to be involved and set the tone. The way in which a pacy winger skins him. The crude challenge. The arms held up as if to convey innocence. The booking. The complaints to the referee. The run back into the centre of the pitch, back to the place Kompany should have stayed all along. All are regular features.
That’s one of the reasons why Kompany has been booked 56 times in his City career.
* If you need to get your hairpiece re-attached, the chances are it’s not working out for you.
* Within five minutes of the second half beginning, United finally produced a moment of danger. It stemmed from a penalty appeal for United, but the resulting corner found the head of Smalling. His header drifted just wide of the post, with Morgan Schneiderlin inches away from getting a touch.
United dominated territory in the second half in comparison with the first, with Van Gaal declaring after the game that his side “created many chances, but could not finish them”. That’s a generous assessment, but the home side did finally push forward for victory.
That only serves to render their first-half strategy so frustrating. United keep things tight in the first period and push on after the break, reducing their potential to win big games to a 45-minute period. When it works (they were 0-0 with Liverpool at half-time in September) there are no complaints, but when it ends a dreary 0-0, supporters will question the paucity of ambition.
* Matteo Darmian was touted as one of Europe’s brightest right-backs when signed by United, but will be upset at being left out of such an important game. To be put behind Antonio Valencia in the right-back pecking order is a low blow.
Darmian’s battle against Raheem Sterling was pitched as one of the key contests in the game, with few predicting that either would not feature. The Italian had started every Premier League game of the season until Sunday.
Interestingly, Darmian’s pace is one of his best assets, vital in a potential duel with Sterling. His average speed this season of 7.06 kph is faster than any other United player this season. Valencia’s average is 6.38 kph.
Yet Valencia justified his manager’s faith. He completed 45 of his 47 passes, lost possession only eight times and kept both Sterling and De Bruyne quiet. Neither City player will be happy with their own work, but Valencia deserves credit for his role in their collective bluntness.
* The importance of Wilfried Bony was highlighted by Ian Watson in Big Weekend, and this was another day on which the Ivorian failed to convince. No striker deserves to be compared to Aguero, but at £28m Bony should be reliable as a back-up option. We’re still not sure if he’s fit for purpose.
Bony failed to have a single shot or create a chance, and he gave the ball away with 13 of his 29 passes. That passing accuracy dropped to 42.9% in Manchester United’s half.
The biggest problem with Bony as Aguero’s back-up is that they are so different from one another. Bony works as a plan B from the bench when an alternative plan is needed, but playing him from the start necessitates either a change of tactic from City, or deems Bony an ineffective option in Aguero’s role. What we’ve seen so far is an unhappy medium of both.
For all their investment, City’s lack of striking options is, erm… striking. What Pellegrini would give for an Aguero-lite, with Bony as the surprise option in the last 20 minutes.
* The ‘what a waste of money’ taunts launched at Martial look sillier by the week. Not only is the Frenchman far further along in his development than anyone could have hoped, he’s also United’s brightest attacking spark. His first Manchester derby was a success.
The game’s youngest attacking player was also easily its best. While others played within themselves, as if sticking to the ‘must not lose’ mantra, Martial was the only one who asked “but what if we actually went for this?”. It was greatly appreciated by those of us watching.
Martial’s best moment was his chipped pass to Jesse Lingard for the chance towards the end of the game, United’s two youngest players linking for their best moment of the match. The disguise and delivery was exceptional, Lingard’s finish close to matching it. More senior colleagues should take note.
* A word too for Marcos Rojo, my personal choice for Man of the Match. The Argentinean’s disagreements with Van Gaal have been well-publicised, but playing like this is an easy way to get back into the manager’s good books.
While Valencia roamed forward on the right-hand side, Rojo stayed back, under orders to thwart De Bruyne’s danger. The arrival of Navas in the second half provided Rojo with a different threat, but he dealt with both opponents with perfect poise. He made seven tackles (the rest of United’s team combined only managed 12).
Rojo will never provide an adequate replacement for Luke Shaw’s strengths, but he does offer resolution at left-back. With Valencia given licence to attack on the right (he’s a winger after all), Rojo is the perfect antidote.
* Jesus Navas had the first shot on target of the Manchester derby after 82 minutes. Jesus is very much the appropriate word.