* Redemption is the buzzword for Manchester United. Ashley Young, Juan Mata, Chris Smalling, Marouane Fellaini and Ander Herrera, close to half a team of players in from the cold to varying degrees. All boast markedly improved reputations.
Louis van Gaal has also responded, following significant doubts regarding his ability to reverse the club’s fortunes. Being the man who followed the man who followed Alex Ferguson was supposed to be football’s easiest gig, but there were times in November and December when it felt far from straightforward.
This victory marked United’s restoration in red pen. In each of their previous two games against the Premier League’s more successful sides (Liverpool and Tottenham), United finally played with an intensity lacking in the past 20 months. Against City, they demonstrated more still.
This too was a bigger test than Liverpool or Spurs. No team has ever beaten United five times consecutively in the Premier League era, but City’s stranglehold on the Manchester derby had become rule rather than exception. That was blown away by a surging, rampant home performance.
United’s ability to stamp a side into the ground when they are on top is back. The knack of their players performing at their best in the biggest moments of the biggest games is back. Their fortune, fluidity and pressing game: back, back and back.
Those facts signal that the real Manchester United might be back, too. Perfection is still a distant ambition, but redemption sure tastes sweet.
* It’s clear that Manchester City don’t particularly want to sack Manuel Pellegrini. The noises coming out of the club is that they will persevere with the Chilean. Pellegrini, Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano all face job appraisals, but not until the end of the season.
The reason for stick over twist is clear. Pellegrini would need to be paid off, a new manager recruited for just one season. Pep Guardiola is the dream candidate, with Diego Simeone and Jurgen Klopp predictable alternatives. All three have insisted that they will stay put until the end of 2015/16. Appointing a manager for a year-long ‘project’ isn’t covered by even the broadest definition of ‘holistic’.
Unfortunately, circumstances may force intentions to be altered. City are currently sleepwalking their way to June, insipid in the extreme. Since the FA Cup victory over Sheffield Wednesday on January 4, they have won four of their last 15 matches, and have lost twice as many. In a Premier League table since that date, Pellegrini’s side sit 11th behind Crystal Palace, Swansea, Everton and Stoke. This is less of a blip and more of a deep funk. City are sinking deeper with each passing week.
* One of the obvious accusations against Pellegrini is his stale tactics, but at Old Trafford the Chilean finally mixed things up. Edin Dzeko dropped out of the side after a run of four games without a goal and two Premier League strikes since September. His replacement was James Milner, who many suspected would move into midfield and allow David Silva to play off Sergio Aguero. In fact, Milner seemed to play wide left with Aguero on his own and Silva roaming as he pleased. We like that.
* City started on the front foot, the presence of an extra midfielder allowing them to effectively press United’s defenders and central midfielders in possession. Unfortunately for Pellegrini, it only lasted 25 minutes.
Jesus Navas had the first chance on goal, breaking the offside trap and sprinting through on David de Gea from the right wing. The chance brought memories of Lazar Markovic against Arsenal last weekend. Some players you assume will finish such chances, others you don’t. Navas falls into that second camp.
The shot, when it game, was scuffed into the foot of De Gea. On commentary, Gary Neville gave Navas the benefit of the doubt in not squaring the ball for Aguero. If you’re going to finish like that, shooting will never be the right option.
* It didn’t take long for the visitors to make amends, and Aguero to score his seventh goal against United since he arrived in England. Only Tottenham have been hurt more by the Argentinean, but it was his first in 564 minutes.
It was a superb move from City, the type of goal which makes you question why they have been so rare of late. Gael Clichy ventured forward before laying the ball off to Milner; United defenders were guilty of flat-footedness, allowing Silva to run from deep unchecked.
The weight of Milner’s pass was superb, taking out four players and putting Silva in on goal, but wide of the near post. There are few combinations that you would prefer more than Silva and Aguero in such a situation, and both delivered with the minimum of fuss. Old Trafford was shell-shocked.
* “They did get a little bit of fortune,” admitted Neville on commentary when discussing United’s equaliser. Yeah, just a bit Gary.
It was a move started by a short backpass from Phil Jones, forcing De Gea to charge from his goal and thwart the onrushing Aguero. The goalkeeper’s kick spiralled out to the left wing, where it hit Fellaini on the back of the neck and rebounded to Herrera. Pablo Zabaleta slipped as he challenged Fellaini, tripping up again as he tried to regain his balance. That’s four pieces of fortune already.
Herrera’s left-footed cross was teasing, but Young missed his attempt at stabbing it past Joe Hart. Instead, the ball hit Clichy and again rebounded into the path of a United player. Young, by now lying on the floor, was able to shin the ball into the empty goal. When your luck is in…
* Manchester City have spent around £470m on new players since June 2010. That’s an eye-watering sum of money, but becomes even more astonishing when you consider this status quo: Gael Clichy is their first-choice left-back. Gael. Clichy.
It’s not that Clichy is a complete disaster, although he should have at least attempted to challenge Fellaini for United’s second goal. But he represents such a paucity of ambition for a side with such funds, and perhaps the extraordinary blind spot City have when it comes to placing importance on their defence.
Clichy has been at the Etihad for almost four years since moving from Arsenal – they weren’t heartbroken to lose him for £7m. The Frenchman was excellent in his first season at City, but has since stuttered and stalled. He can be regularly seen at the back post shaking his head after being beaten to a header, and his ability to hold a flat defensive line is often shambolic.
Unlike other Premier League left-backs, Clichy doesn’t offer enough going forward to negate the defensive concerns. Five assists and one goal has been the return from his last three league seasons.
“I don’t know if we have improved since last year,” said Clichy in February. He’s right. And his continued presence is a testament to that.
* Whilst my first conclusion mentioned redemption, in the case of Fellaini we are surely nearing resurrection status.
As the Belgian walked off the field with ten minutes remaining, the Old Trafford crowd stood as one to applaud their new cult hero. Admitting an error of judgement is not much fun, but I’m one of many that must hold their hands up. Few predicted this stunning transformation.
“Marouane always does the things that we want from him,” said Van Gaal this week. “He is performing what we want from a midfielder, we have other players who are too creative and too emotional to do the job. I’ve always said for the balance of our team you have to also defend as well as attack and you have to beat the pressure from the opponent. Marouane plays a factor in all these aspects, we needed him in the team, now he has that role and he plays his role very well.”
It’s an interesting point. Fellaini has not learned any new skills; he has merely been given the stage to perfect his own existing characteristics. After suffering from the pressure of being United’s only signing of last summer, he has flourished away from the glare.
Never were his qualities more apparent than for United’s second goal. As Young prepared to deliver his cross from the left, Fellaini stole to the back post in order to avoid being picked up by the crowd around the penalty spot. The offside call was marginal, and the benefit of that doubt given to the attacker.
From such a position, Fellaini was never missing the chance. He is becoming the perfect balance to the poise of Young. That’s a sentence I still can’t believe I’m writing.
* And so onto Young, the most improved player in the Premier League. There is an argument that Fellaini has simply been better utilised and supported, and therefore become more appreciated. Young has just got better.
A year ago, his introduction at Old Trafford would raise a smattering of groans. Young would enter play, overhit a cross, run down a blind alley, shoot over from distance or go to ground too easily. It became his Groundhog Day.
The response has been startling. Gone is the abject delivery and the dribbling with eyes down to the ground, here is a player described by his manager as United’s best player against City. “I think Ashley Young was the man of the match,” Van Gaal said. “He did his job as a left winger.” A simple message, and the reason why Angel Di Maria can’t get a game. Imagine that.
Young is spearheading United’s attacks. During the first half, 56.8% of United’s play came down the left wing, with 50.2% in the match as a whole (compared with 21.9% down the right). The first half against Liverpool told a similar story, with 46.1% of the play down the left and 30.6% down the right.
Against City, he was at the heart of everything United did well. He scored, assisted both the second and fourth goals, had more shots than any other United player and created as many chances as any other player on the pitch. Young hasn’t just been a useful option for United, he’s been the answer.
* Vincent Kompany’s challenge on Daley Blind was careless and mistimed but worthy of a yellow, not red. Mark Clattenburg made the correct call.
Interestingly, the slow-motion replay of the tackle showed us more than just his crime. Kompany appeared to clutch his thigh as he made the move to slide in, and had already faced a fitness test before the match. Another call Pellegrini has made in error: If a muscle injury has not fully recovered, it is foolish to risk. We await the results of a scan to assess the damage done.
“It’s better with Kompany but if he can’t play, we have a squad,” said Pellegrini on Thursday. Did City risk the fitness of the captain with six games of the season left because they don’t trust a player they paid £40m for last summer?
* The image of Martin Demichelis lying on the ground holding his head only to jump back up when Clattenburg stopped the match was amusing. The incident was made more enjoyable by Young being the first on the scene to protest against an alleged dive. Presumably he turned up with 10,000 spoons when referee Clattenburg only needed a knife.
On a more serious note, referees have a difficult enough job without players simulating head injuries. Given the way medical treatment for such injuries is being prioritised, the least players could do is not fake pain. They won’t stop, of course.
* There is no doubt that Juan Mata was offside for United’s clinching goal, and City can feel aggrieved on that front. However, it did create an easy comparison between Mata’s finish and that of Navas earlier on. Whilst City’s Spaniard looked tentative, United’s was composed, clinical and confident.
Mata is another redeemed at Old Trafford, although his brightness never dimmed in the eyes of many supporters. This made it three goals and an assist in his four games since returning to the side. Before that, it was two months without a league start.
* It’s impossible not to pass comment on Eliaquim Mangala’s defending for the fourth United goal.
As the ball was delivered into the box, the Frenchman made the inexplicable decision to run towards his own goal while City’s other three defenders stayed in a disciplined line. That movement played Smalling (and two other United players) onside, and he beat Hart from five yards. United fans will be keen to hear that Smalling now has as many league goals as Danny Welbeck this season.
Mangala completed his trick by weakly offering up his hand in a claim for offside. I’ll admit to getting angry. This is the fifth most expensive player ever bought by a British club, and yet he looks completely out of his depth at Premier League level. It’s not even as if Mangala’s untested and raw: He’s 24.
“With determination I never give up my target,” the defender said in January on his poor form. “I’m there for the team and for the fans and never want to lose a match. At City, if you don’t play well you know that you’ve got another player who’s ready to take back the place. But I am happy to admit that the competition is good for my progress. It’s good for me and for my development.”
We’re yet to see any evidence of that. Instead Mangala has regularly demonstrated his lack of positional discipline when called upon – at least he’s following his captain’s example. Patience is needed with young players in a new league but, given their FFP limitations, City did not pay £40m for this.
* Although it came in the most underwhelming of circumstances, Aguero must be heartily congratulated for his late finish. It made him the latest player to reach a century of goals for City. One of the few who deserves to leave the ground with head held high.
* “All that is in my mind is just to think about winning the next game you play,” said Manuel Pellegrini before the game, and he will no doubt repeat such vanilla quotes this week. The Chilean has the demeanour of a broken man.
If a manager can be judged on the desire of his players to fight for him, Pellegrini is lying on the canvas. Too many players ambling back to support the defence. Too many players suffering from pitiful decision-making and concentration. Too many players without the hunger to fight for their manager.
Patience in a manager must be earned, not simply offered with the waving of a carte blanche. If Liverpool win against Newcastle on Monday, the gap to City will be four points. Pellegrini has overseen a run which could see City slip out of the top four, disastrous for their hopes of meaningful progression. He must go, and go soon.
* The final word, however, must go to United and their now content manager.
Van Gaal may have struggled during his first few months in England, but there is one area in which he has remained consistent. United’s record against other sides in the top seven coming into the derby was 1.89 points per game, with City in second with 1.67 ppg. Chelsea (1.56 ppg) and Liverpool (1.45 ppg) come next. This victory only takes United further ahead of their rivals in this regard.
However, it was a far smaller mini-league that Van Gaal chose to focus on in his post-match press conference. Asked if United were now the dominant team in Manchester, his reply was wonderfully pithy: “We are four points ahead, so that’s a fact.”
It’s hard to argue with that. Manchester is red, again.