What began with optimism crashed into disappointment as the blue half of Manchester celebrated another derby victory against the Reds.
As is common with derbies, the final score-line perhaps doesn’t reflect the affair and it was far from a routine 1-0 win for the home side. Nevertheless, despite an admirable display of character, with injuries and rash decisions creating havoc within United’s ranks, the result was probably a fair one.
Van Gaal’s side started positively and enjoyed good possession without troubling Joe Hart in City’s goal. The sides seemed evenly matched before the game turning event which saw Chris Smalling inexplicably see red for two yellow card offences, each radiating inexperience and stupidity.
From then on the Reds battled hard with 10 men but the lethal Sergio Aguero proved his quality once more, and despite a spirited final 15 minutes, United were unable to salvage something from the tie.
Defeat against the Blues is always difficult to stomach, but certainly there was pride in the performance despite the result; here are five things we learned from the narrow loss to Pellegrini’s side.
1) David De Gea
One clear positive from Sunday’s game (and from recent weeks in general) has been the form of United’s No.1. Crucial saves from Sergio Aguero kept the Reds in the game right until the final whistle and the Spaniard has really grown into his role.
An outstanding performance against Chelsea was rewarded when United equalised in the dying seconds at Old Trafford and had the Reds been more clinical in front of goal the Spaniard may well have heavily contributed to a more positive result on Sunday.
The nervy performances which characterised De Gea’s early games in a United shirt are increasingly a distant memory. Confident and assured displays have become the norm, something which is even more impressive when considering the lack of consistency in the defence in front of him.
A scrap for a top 4 place is well and truly on and United will need De Gea to maintain his encouraging form.
2) Diamond Di Maria?
Recent weeks have seen Louis van Gaal adopt a 4-3-3 formation in which Angel Di Maria has been playing predominantly wide on the left. However, after an explosive start to his United career the Argentine has carried less influence since the switch.
There is, of course, the argument that his influence is a direct result of the tougher opposition faced but there is no doubt that playing wide starves Di Maria of the ball. Playing on the wing is a difficult and often thankless task; tracking up and down and making lung-busting sprints often without receiving the ball.
When playing in the diamond, Angel was able to drift out to the left when necessary, whilst maintaining a more central presence to enable more influence on the game. It is no coincidence that Di Maria put in his most impressive displays for Real Madrid playing more centrally.
The Argentine is probably the most talented individual at Van Gaal’s disposal and he should be in possession as much as possible. With players now returning from suspensions and injuries it will be interesting to see which formation the Dutchman prefers to persist with.
Whatever Van Gaal chooses, feeding the Argentine the ball as much as possible should be high in his thoughts. Di Maria is a match-winner, but against City he struggled to have as much impact as in previous games. It is now up to United’s manager to get the best out of him.
3) Welcome Back Wayne?
Following Wayne Rooney’s 3-match ban for an ill-advised hack on Stewart Downing, much talk centred around whether Mata was a better option in the side. Rooney inevitably divides opinion and in some ways his performance against City encapsulated both sides of the debate.
Rooney was often wasteful and woefully predictable in possession, the trademark 60-yard switch of play was on display but rarely made it to its target. However, the hunger, the drive and the power at the striker’s disposal nearly resulted in what would have been one of the individual goals of the season.
Moreover, when debating Rooney and Mata’s qualities, far too much emphasis is always placed on the attacking exploits. There is no doubt that in regards to defensive solidity Rooney is perhaps the best No.10 around when deployed there.
Mata failed to take is chance and influence games from his preferred role in Rooney’s absence and the fact remains that the United side always presents a far more compact and solid look with Rooney in it.
Perhaps most pertinently of all, though, is the fact that at this present time the former Everton man is one of worryingly few natural leaders within the squad. For all his indiscretions, United remain a better team with Rooney on the field.
4) Far From Clinical
Despite encouragement stemming from recent performances, the fact remains that United have made their worst start to a season since Ron Atkinson was in charge.
Perhaps the biggest contributor to the lowly points haul has been a lack of clinical finishing in the final third. Van Persie has lacked sharpness in front of goal and had United capitalised on their chances against City (and in other games) the season could have a whole different complexion.
United’s play in the final third has not been incisive or deliberate. Far too many times play has been pensive and chances have been squandered. Against City, Rooney should have shot with his left foot, Di Maria perhaps should have done better with his right-footed effort and Fellaini made a mess of a guilt-edged chance just 6 yards out. Perhaps this is harsh criticism but the biggest games are decided by fine margins.
United’s general play, shape and possession have been improving, but against City once more the inability to take chances cost the Reds. It’s been a similar story all season but for all the talk of the potency of Rooney, Van Persie, Falcao and Di Maria, the goals have yet to start flowing.
The worst start to a campaign in three decades, just three wins in eleven games, no wins away from home since April and only one win after going behind in 2014; it doesn’t make great reading.
There is no doubt that the last 15 months have been very difficult, but even despite the loss against City there were more encouraging signs. The character and fight in the last 15 minutes against Pellegrini’s men (and against Chelsea for that matter) felt like United.
Yes, the club have made a bad start, but there is a confidence throughout the club that Van Gaal will get it right, and for large parts of the games over the last two weeks United have matched the two sides regarded as the best in the league.
Results will need to improve quickly, but the signs are there that the squad is taking shape and progressing; patience is required.