It wasn’t just to be any old derby match – United’s visit to City would hold huge value to the fans after last season’s goings on. Even going into the game the signs were that a result would be big heading into the busy Christmas period – United held a three point lead over City but the blues were unbeaten in the league and had a very impressive record at home. Ferguson was able to call on Cleverley and Valencia who had both been doubts whilst City had Silva fit and Mancini opted for Balotelli over Tevez. Here we discuss the talking points of the game and welcome contributions from both sets of fans.
United setup and game plan
Shape and approach
The debate pre-game was all about where Ferguson would select Wayne Rooney who simply thrives against his blue neighbours. Given City’s woes in wide areas thus far this season, width was always going to get the nod ahead of the more narrow diamond formation that Fergie has attempted only once in the Premier League so far. Though Valencia was ruled out in the press conference (though strangely ‘close to fitness’ post the Reading game), there was always a small chance he could surprise us. If not, Rooney was a shoe-in for the right-wing slot having performed so admirably there in the previous league game. As it was, Rooney performed the ‘10’ to perfection as he did at Chelsea (and the 2nd half versus Spurs at home) as United went out with a typical fluid 4-4-1-1 approach.
As with the game versus Chelsea at the Bridge, United attempted to soak up the early pressure by dropping deep, crowding the middle – with Rooney dropping into midfield and Young and Valencia playing narrow – and Evans and Ferdinand keeping a high(ish) line to squeeze City’s Tevez and the midfield. It was notable how Evans was following Aguero out at every opportunity, and both fullbacks were quick to get out to Silva, Nasri and Balotelli once in possession (having started fairly narrow themselves). This patience set the stall out for the rest of the game; all that was left to do was counter with precision – and boy were we in for a treat.
Rooney and van Perise link-play unleash side’s potential
The first goal was initiated by Evra’s quick ball into Young down the left hand side with Nasri sleeping; flicking the ball to van Persie, whose superbly weighted chest pass back into Young allowed United to counter at speed. Young should be credited with the timing of his release to Rooney who finished off the move exquisitely with a swivel and neat reverse finish. (If Kompany has a weakness, it is in tight situations and can’t turn as quickly as some of his counterparts.) The goal was just reward for United’s tactical approach even if until that point they’d not had the balance of the play. With van Persie and Rooney involved in almost everything positive from the away side, alternating well in the ‘10’ role, the fullbacks and midfield runners were encouraged to get in behind and take advantage once the City build-up play had stagnated. Van Persie once again played his ‘9’ role to perfection – pulling out wide, holding the ball superbly and releasing it with aplomb. Rooney’s second you felt, was only a matter of time.
Credit goes to Fergie and his coaching staff for identifying City’s weakness in the fullback area, and attacking with verve and precision. Condensing the middle, and not allowing Toure time with Cleverley pushing high on him (and Rooney asked to play his part in this regard), ultimately meant that the ball was less at the feet of danger men Aguero and Silva. Carrick should be praised for nullifying the City threat (see below), but also for his attacking contribution and metronome passing from deep, which allowed United to move up the pitch with grace. Rafael too, continued his rise with an excellent assist and an even better decision to attack the penalty area with 91 minutes on the clock, drawing the crucial foul.
Great selection, great tactics and a much deserved win in a game that could have seen a score-line more in line with the 1-6 abomination had Young’s goal not been incorrectly ruled out for offside. Aside from last season’s blemish, United continued their fine record at the Etihad, and despite a long way to go, remain favourites to re-claim their title.
Why United had been conceding goals so softly is open to debate. Many reasons – injuries, changing goalkeepers, too much midfield rotation – have been suggested with none proving to be conclusive. What changed against City was that United defended as a unit, starting from the front to the back.
It had been clearly identified that the key to not allowing City to play was to close them down quickly all over the pitch, including their defenders. Even beyond that, BBC’s Match of the Day identified the hard work van Persie had done inside his own box – attacking and clearing corners. There was some organisation about how United defended and the rewards were reaped.
With Cleverley and Rooney providing some energy in the middle, it allowed Carrick to concentrate on what he does best – protecting the back four. Arguably it was Carrick’s finest performance for United – he made numerous tackles, interceptions and blocks, providing the centre backs with the kind of protection that has been needed lately.
Behind the defenders lurked de Gea, recalled to the side as Mrs Lindegaard was having a baby. David’s performance was a timely reminder why he should be United’s number one and the rotation needs to end. Not only did he make some excellent saves as well as showing some good handling on routine saves; but he seemed to have a new found confidence when coming for high balls – catching and punching assertively. Maybe the biggest thing he has over Anders though is his distribution – it’s phenomenal; both out of hand and off the ground he’s capable of finding team mates every time.
Whilst the team did worked hard to defend, there were star performers across the back four. Both fullbacks were excellent in getting forward and solid at the back. Evra in particular has responded to his critics and put in some outstanding performances over the last few months. In the middle, United are blessed with quality – Evans had been monstrous until injury forced him off and his replacement, Smalling was as good. For young centre backs they offer incredible composure, distribution and ability to read the game and make correct decisions. Still, the old master proved he’s far from finished too. Ferdinand was, as he has been for the season, immense. He oozes class and there’s little doubt that he remains one of the league’s top centre halves. It says a lot that despite playing against top quality centre forwards, De Gea had spells where the only efforts he had to deal with came from half chance shots by midfielders rather than forwards.
Ashley Young’s offside goal
There isn’t really a debate here, if you think its offside – I suggest you read up on the laws of the game! Having said that, the linesman is looking across and Pablo Zabaleta is hidden behind Ashley Young.
Many Reds will remember offside decision going against the club, for example – Didier Drogba’s goal in the 2-1 defeat back in 2009/10. United lost the league but a single point. If the title goes down to the wire like last season, I’m sure this incident would have been brought up had United not won the game. Thankfully, van Persie struck home that superb freekick.
Robin van Persie match winner yet again
Robin van Persie again stepped up when it mattered to grab all three points for United with a freekick two minutes into injury time. Its becoming a familiar story this season as the Dutchman extended his league goals to 11. Looking back at games this season, van Persie has been the difference. Looking back at that superb hattrick against Southampton, or last week against Reading – it was van Persie’s goal that made the difference and of course, it was his penalty that gave United a 2-1 lead over Liverpool. United weren’t as reliant on van Persie yesterday, with Wayne Rooney, Ashley Young and Michael Carrick all putting in superb performances, but special players make the difference.
Eric Cantona was another player with the knack of scoring important goals. 93/94 – United win the double. With Eric suspended the following season, the club came second to Blackburn Rovers in the league and lost in the FA Cup final 1-0 to Everton. The return of Ferguson’s most important signing resulted in another double the following season, with the Frenchman scoring vital goals in key games towards the backend of the season. In certain games, he wouldn’t be on the ball as much, but a mazy dribble (aka Tottenham at home) or a back post volley (away at Newcastle) would be the difference between the two sides. Fast forward over fifteen years later and van Persie is beginning to have the same impact. Its strange to even think that some Arsenal fans considered it a decent piece of business at the time for their club, considering his age and injury record – but I’m sure those opinions have been replaced with the stark reality – he is absolute different class. We had an interview with an popular Arsenal blogger at the start of the season suggesting that his injuries could be an issue, however he has featured in all league games this season – more than any other United player.
Rio Ferdinand coin incident
It’s not particularly nice to dwell on incidents that highlight the worst in the game but the reaction to Rio Ferdinand being hit by a coin thrown by City fans has been bizarre. Looking back, United were lucky that other players weren’t hit as more coins or objects are clearly visible lying on the side of the pitch and Rooney was targeted when taking a corner midway through the second half. Oddly, Atkinson somewhat shrugged off Rooney’s complaint at the time.
A pretty vocal group of fans have suggested that Rio antagonised the City fans by celebrating in front of them. Influential types such as Dan Levene and BBC 5 Live have only fueled this nonsensical theory. Ferdinand’s always a slightly over the top and passionate celebrator of United’s goals, particularly those that win games late on, but he celebrated in front of the away fans only, not the home fans. Whilst Ferdinand is the kind of character that other fans love to hate – it’s pretty difficult to paint him in the wrong on this one.
Alex Ferguson and Roberto Mancini were quick to criticise the behaviour of fans but in typical Fergie fashion he reminded the world that United players were subjected to similar abuse at Chelsea earlier in the year when items including a chair were thrown at the players. It just happens that other events surrounding that game took the media focus instead.
The FA have confirmed that along with the police they are looking at various incidents from the game, and rightly so. Whilst condoning the throwing of coins is the last thing I’d do, part of me can’t help but enjoy the passion shown by fans from both sides at a time when stadiums are becoming ever more sterile.
Manchester United claimed a last gasp win in the Manchester derby, beating Manchester City 3-2 at Eastlands with a late deflected Robin van Persie freekick. Wayne Rooney had given United a two goal lead, before City fought back through Yaya Toure and Pablo Zabaleta – but were undone but the Dutchman’s left foot, which is proving to be invaluable this season. United last beat City at Eastlands in the league back in 2010, when Paul Scholes scored a dramatic late winner. The game was a superb advert for football, with chances at both ends and some real quality on show.
United fans will be buoyed by individual performances as well as the result. All the defenders were excellent whilst those ahead of them did admirable jobs with the forwards in particular breaking quickly and dangerously at every occasion – at times it was like watching the United of old. Even the unpopular Ashley Young had a very effective game whilst both Valencia and Cleverley in particular (he was excellent in the middle, quashing any doubts about his ability) deserve recognition for solid performances having been doubts. There will be concerns for Valencia and Evans who couldn’t complete the full game but Kagawa and Vidic could return against Sunderland next weekend when United will try to at least maintain their six point advantage over City.
As ever, if you wish to relive the game in GIF format with added ‘forgotten’ moments, head over to Beautifully Red.