It was set up for Man City to go on and coronate themselves against their closest rivals, both in geography and on the table, by putting 15 points between them and chasing pack with 10 games to go. Yet, just like 3 years ago, The Red Devils came to spoil the party. Within 34 seconds, Martial was felled by Gabriel Jesus in the penalty area and Bruno Fernandes stuck it into the back of the net, although Ederson almost kept it out. For the rest of the first half, Man City were able to edge control back into the game and by the end of it, it looked like a matter of time. The second half almost started like that as Rodri hit the edge of bar and post. Almost immediately afterwards, Shaw galloped into space after beating Cancelo to the ball, where he exchanged passes with Rashford before putting it into the net. After that, United played as progressively and proactively in a big game as they had done under Solskjaer. So much so, that Martial had two chances, the first more difficult than the other, and Rashford with another, where he should have shot rather than pass. City had flurry of chances towards the end but by the time Anthony Taylor blew the final whistle, none had gone past Henderson into his net. Now the difference sits at 11 points. It’s not impossible…
Vocal Focal Point
It has been a source of trouble for Solskjaer’s Red Devils since the start of the season as the number nine position has been an unfruitful. Cavani had been brought in to provide competition after Ighalo had been brought in to provide the same thing but the Nigerian’s loan was going to be up before the end of Jan so rather than wait, they fixed that issue in the summer. But after a season high goal tally, Martial had seemingly been given the starting berth as a striker. 23 goals in all competitions, 17 of which came in the Premier League, along with all round performances that brought the other attackers into play, something that the previous number nine lacked. After all the while where it seemed that Martial would become an in between option for left wing and striker, it looked for all the world that the latter was his to lose. Almost 8 months later, he had effectively lost that position through no one else’s fault but his own.
The main problem became not the fact that he wasn’t scoring goals but it was the fact that he wasn’t even moving well to get chances. Usually, his finishing is sharp but it has been lacking since that Copenhagen game and it came home to roost when he missed guilt edged chances in the next game, which saw us exit in the Europa League. It was something we saw again today, as he missed a 1v1 chance where he went near post once again when the far post was more open that anything but it was misses in similar fashions to the ones he has missed over the past 2/3s of a years. He is no longer hitting the corners that he was well accustomed to doing, perhaps with a lack of confidence wearing him down. The other big(ish) chance that he had was a header at the far post where the ball spun off a deflection, akin to the overhead winner that Rooney scored those 10 years ago, but the ex-Monaco player decided to go with his head rather than the ostentatious kick but the spin, and lack of balance, meant that he nodded it harmlessly to the keeper.
But let that not take anything away from the fact that he put in a performance that we have not seen since the end of last season. Perhaps it has been since that Leicester game that secured us the top four that Martial put in a game as good as the one he had today. It wasn’t his best of last season as that came in this fixture, the home one. The last one in front of fans. He was ran the City line ragged that day and he done the same today. What was more special about today was the fact that City last season, their defence was patched up. This one, in John Stones and Ruben Dias, had been a fortified backline that hadn’t been on the end of a loss in the entire season. He hustled and bustled against them whenever they tried to nick the ball when it came into his feet. The ball was able to stick up top for the first time in what seemed like years in a Man Utd side. But more importantly, the swagger was back. The touch was assured and tight. The composure under pressure was exemplary. The passing was crisp and purposeful. At times, when United were under severe pressure, he even dropped quite far back to act as a dovetail for the first phase to play off. He was then able to work it up the pitch with a pass out to Rashford on one occasion, which garnered our first attack of the first half after what seemed a building siege of pressure. It has been an annus horribilis for Martial and next season, the damage might be already done as United look in the market for a centre forward but if United are to be a great team again, having the talents of Martial within the squad will be important.
Vocal Man Between The Sticks
The news of De Gea’s being back in Spain for the birth of his child, it would have been welcome news to Dean Henderson. After two stellar years on loan in Yorkshire, the belief had grown in him that he would achieve his dream and be the number for Man Utd. A dream shared also by Carlisle, who get paid £10k every time Henderson turns out between the sticks of Man Utd. Today would be his biggest test. The juggernaut of Man City had rolled to 21 wins and they had been swatting every one in their path, including United in the League Cup. Henderson played in that game and despite the result, done little wrong.
Given the rules around COVID, De Gea’s absence might be prolonged and Henderson has now firmly laid down a hat in the debate to continue as the number one keeper. All in all, he is not special. He has good keeping qualities – he gets down well, he makes himself big, he is incredibly brave, he is competent coming from corners and, surprisingly, isn’t too shabby with his feet either. He has some rough edges – he does have a horror moment in him, seen at Sheffield Utd, he has a penchant in parrying the ball back into danger areas, as seen today, and his overconfidence can spill over into outweighing his talent. But, on a basic level, he is everything you want in a keeper. Perhaps his lack of uniqueness will play against him but in doing most things well, he offers something completely different to the Spaniard, whose goalkeeping ability is predicated almost entirely on his stunning shot stopping ability, which may no longer be with us.
But, without the confidence, Henderson probably doesn’t do what he does today for the second goal. For all the world, you think, in the early embers of the second half, after Rodri just clipped the post, throwing a 50/50 ball into the wide area would not be the best thing. But it was something that Henderson is capable of and luckily, Shaw was quick enough to get there before Cancelo and a move that started with a risky ball into the middle third ended up with the recipient of that throw planting it into the side netting of Ederson. Henderson saved well for the most part, that aforementioned parry aside, and did well with his feet. The competition for the number one berth is truly on and as of now, it looks like the England international is in the lead, in the eyes of the fans anyway.