Last weekend’s top-of-the-table clash between Manchester City and Manchester United was everything that a memorable derby match should be—as well as a few things it should not. Five goals, outstanding football, crunching tackles, massive performances from some players—others standing out as failures—woodwork struck, controversial decisions, swings of momentum and a rivalry so fearsome that it ultimately boiled over in bloodshed and rage.
It even had Tom Cruise lurking somewhere.
In some senses, it may seem hard to carry out a clear-headed analysis on a day when the red mist—and the blue—descended. But the seismic meeting of the two best sides in England brought much food for thought, once everyone had taken time to lie down in a darkened room.
The tactics and personnel chosen by the managers were fascinating in their own right.
Sir Alex Ferguson included Tom Cleverley, despite his apparent injury against Cluj in midweek Champions League action, which meant Rooney played between once again in an advanced midfield position. Situated just behind Robin van Persie, the England star excelled and his brilliant display did much to place control in the visitor’s hands after they weathered the early City onslaught.
Rooney’s second goal was a masterstroke. Moving forward after Michael Carrick fed the ball to winger Antonio Valencia on the right-flank, he gradually accelerated as Rafael made an overlapping run. That simple move threatened to leave City fullback Pablo Zabaleta two-on-one, forcing midfielder Barry to move out wide and support his fullback. This left the not so defensively astute David Silva trying to track Rooney’s late run, which culminated in an inevitable goal for the former Evertonian.
For City, Silva’s best moves invariably come when he is given a chance to play smart passes behind opposing defenders; opening up teams in the manner of a freshly sharpened paper knife. Yet there was little chance of that happening with the listless Mario Balotelli in the side—the most obviously glaring gamble by Roberto Mancini with Carlos Tevez left on the bench. But this spoke nothing new to anyone familiar with the Italian striker’s style. Clearly, with Balotelli, it is simply impossible to know what to expect.
On the other hand, with Tevez in the side, the reverse has been true. Now that he has left his golfing sabbatical behind him, the former Man City captain has been outstanding, which only reflects worse on the moody, fitful Italian. The combination of the Argentine with compatriot Sergio Aguero changed the flow of the match in the second half, with the tandem injecting energy, creating, and using space where there had been previously been none.
Yet, City’s upstart may have been for nothing had Ashley Young’s goal not been wrongly ruled out for offside in the 59th minute. After Yaya Toure pulled one back for the hosts at 1-2 (and not 1-3 had Young’s goal not been disallowed) an equalizer always seemed on the cards. The departure of the limping Valencia, who had been covering the edge of the box from where Zabaleta had so much time to shoot, created the space needed to level the match.
In the last half hour, City were spectacular. Yet, the combination of United forward Danny Welbeck to rob Gael Clichy, the error by Tevez to foul Rafael, and the only memorable touch of the whole afternoon for Samir Nasri, which left his own keeper Joe Hart grasping the air, ensured that blue hearts would lay broken on Sunday. And, Van Persie would become a hero with his last-gasp freekick, while a village idiot from the normally genteel Cheshire village of Knutsford received his life-time ban for tossing a hail of coins onto the pitch in injury time.
For United, the manner of victory was stunning. If it marks a key point in the march to record-shattering 20th top-flight title, it might be noted it came in much the same manner that City denied them such a triumph last May. Poetic justice? Perhaps, but there still is a long way to go.
After the match, City’s infuriated followers turned on both the visiting players and their own, with fierce debates raging online and in the stands over Mancini’s future, and the wastefulness of a play such as Balotelli.
However, the Italian’s high-profile sulk should not disguise other failings on the pitch, like the late intervention by Nasri, which left Mancini suggesting the wall for the Van Persie’s freekick was akin to an American sitcom.
Hysterical reactions suggesting the manager should be sacked after the club’s first home league defeat in two years are scarcely more over-the-top than the fury in the stands.
Still, for City one statistic remains particularly alarming this season. Not only did they fail to win a single game in their Champions League group, but they have also failed to secure three-points in the trio of league matches against fellow English sides featuring in the competition. Playing in fits-and-starts has been enough for City against most sides, but nine failures against the top teams suggests a worrying pattern if they are to repeat as champions.
For United, the tally of “goals against” remains high after allowing two by their neighbors in the second-half. At 23, it is already higher than the whole of their 2007-08 league campaign. In fact, only twice have the Red Devils conceded more at this stage of a league campaign; in 1996-97 and 2001-02. The first of those ended in a title triumph, albeit with the lowest winning Premier League points tally of 75, while the second saw the team finish in 3rd place. However, Sir Alex Ferguson’s men have more points than in either of those two seasons at this stage and with 40 goals scored already, the club’s Premiership record of 97 is in range.
In the end, regardless of how many they ultimately score, few will be as important as that last minute strike that settled an unforgettable derby match last Sunday.