Manchester United were condemned to their third league defeat of the season by neighbours Manchester City on Sunday. Sergio Aguero’s second half strike was enough to separate the sides in a 1-0 victory for the hosts after a strange game which saw United reduced to ten men in the first period. Chris Smalling was sent off for two yellow cards in the first half, which exasperated Louis Van Gaal’s defensive problems.
In truth, United were unlucky not to get a point from the game after dominating large periods, even with ten men, but after the sending off, it was always going to be an uphill task. City had three penalty claims turned down by referee Michael Oliver whilst United had several chances in the second half. Angel Di Maria had a shot well saved by Joe Hart after a brilliant run from Wayne Rooney whilst Marouane Fellaini missed a gilt-edged opportunity from a set piece.
It was a result which leaves United four points adrift of the top four, seven behind City and 13 behind leaders Chelsea after 10 games. Van Gaal will be hoping for a huge improvement in results over the next few matches. With top four rivals Arsenal, Liverpool and high-flying Southampton all to play in the next six games, it is absolutely imperative that United start cutting out ridiculous individual errors so they can get the points which their improved performances deserve.
Chris Smalling’s red card wasn’t just stupid, it was unforgivable
Van Gaal called Smalling’s dismissal “stupid” in his post-match press conference but I’d like to go one step further and say that it was completely unforgivable. The first yellow card was absolutely laughable. With United in a decent position, having controlled the majority of the possession, Smalling decided to give the home fans something to shout about by needlessly obstructing Hart from releasing the ball. He could have no complaints with the subsequent card.
It didn’t appear possible, but the second yellow was arguably worse. If you are already on a yellow card in a high tempo, volatile derby match, to recklessly slide into a tackle like that is a ridiculous thing to do. Antonio Valencia’s amateurish positioning didn’t help but you knew as soon as he committed to that challenge that the only outcome was another yellow. It was the latest in a long line of individual errors from United defenders which need to be cut out very quickly.
As for Smalling, he must learn from his mistakes and mature as a player or he will have to leave the club very soon.
The players fought for the red shirt
The players who remained on the pitch following Smalling’s antics can be very proud of their doggish display. It isn’t easy to have ten men for so long in any match, especially a high profile one such as this, but the way they almost snuck a point at the death was admirable. You knew a City goal was coming when they piled on the pressure just after half time but United, led by Rooney, were able to dominate the last 20 minutes.
There was a stage with around five minutes to go that Rooney tracked back around 70 yards just to make a tackle on the edge of the United box. That desire shown by the captain epitomised the display in the last quarter of the game, when the Red Devils were on top and created the best chances. On another day, one of those chances would have gone in but in the end it just wasn’t to be.
Di Maria is more effective centrally
Since arriving for a club record fee, Di Maria has played both centrally and on the wing and has so far been more impressive in a central area. It makes sense to put your most influential player in the centre of the pitch where he will receive more of the ball. Even when the Argentine played in that role in Van Gaal’s diamond, he did drift out to the wing to provide width anyway.
Di Maria has often looked isolated on the wing. He is much easier to defend against in that role as he is much more restricted. It was worth noting that some of his deliveries from set pieces were extremely inviting but his delivery from corners was poor as he failed to beat the first man on a few occasions. He appears to be more comfortable crossing from a deeper position where he can generate more whip and pace on the ball, areas which he is more likely to get into if he is played centrally.
Falcao’s return can’t come soon enough, Van Persie needs a rest
Bar one brilliant run in the second half, when he beat two men and fired low at Hart, Robin Van Persie was very quiet yet again on Sunday. He looked extremely leggy and tired as he pressed the ball when City had possession. When United went down to ten men, it would have been more useful to have someone younger and more athletic, who was capable of chasing down every single lost cause to keep City under pressure. Van Persie couldn’t provide that.
Obviously, the Dutchman is always capable of producing a moment of magic but he seems to be on the decline. Step forward: Radamel Falcao. The new signing has missed the last two games through injury but looks set to return in the next couple of weeks and his return can’t come soon enough. United need Falcao to return as Van Persie will benefit from a rest.
Three wins in 10 games does not tell the whole story
United may have had their worst start since 1986 and sit in a lowly 10th position in the table after 10 games but there have been several signs that they are improving. The campaign began with several make-shift teams and a lack of new signings which certainly contributed to the poor form. Since the new boys came in, there has been a distinct improvement with several individual errors costing them points in recent games.
There were more signs in the derby that United were returning to some form. You can tell that Van Gaal’s ideas have started to hit home and the performances are getting much better. United dominated large periods of the games against Chelsea and City and were unlucky to come away with just one point from those two fixtures. Expect results to pick up over the next ten games and United to continue to improve as the season progresses.