There was a sense of expectancy at Old Trafford on Sunday that hadn’t been present for some time. United went into the match against their bitter City rivals in great form, with the blues’ fortunes in stark contrast.
After an impressive start in which Sergio Aguero put City in front, many could be forgiven for getting slightly nervous, but from then on it was all Manchester United. Ashley Young drew the Reds level, before placing a cross onto Marouane Fellaini’s head for United’s lead before half-time.
After the break the Old Trafford outfit continued to control the game and went further in front after Juan Mata showed true composure to slot through Joe Hart’s legs. Poor defending from the visitors then allowed Chris Smalling a free header from a free-kick for number four and the game was effectively over. Even after Aguero pulled one back City’s heads had tangibly dropped.
It was a win that meant so much for so many reasons; here are five things we learned from the impressive victory over Manuel Pellegrini’s side.
Many eyebrows were raised when the Ecuadorian signed a new contract in the summer, but Antonio Valencia has proved his value to the squad this season. There’s no doubt that the winger is far from a natural full-back, and Rafael’s omission remains slightly puzzling, but over the past few weeks the former Wigan man has looked assured in United’s back-line.
Against City, Valencia’s pace proved a real asset (particularly as he still has plenty to learn in terms of positioning). Moreover, there were signs of a little more adventure going forwards. It is highly likely that the club will look to bring in a recognised right-back in the summer, but Antonio has proved himself a valuable asset and deserves credit in what is an unfamiliar role.
2) Centre-Back Axis
Centre-back is another area highly touted to be strengthened come the summer, and it will certainly be interesting to see movements both in and out, with the likes of Phil Jones, Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling all playing for their futures.
Much talk has centred upon their ability (or inability) to stride out of defence with the ball and perform Van Gaal’s ‘philosophy’, and this focus has often detracted from their abilities as natural defenders.
A lot has been expected of Jones and Smalling and it’s fair to say that neither have reached the heights that many expected them to yet. Nevertheless, as a partnership, when played together consistently, they have invariably looked solid, and against a fluent City side the pair were aggressive and, for the most-part, looked in control.
With Rojo settling in well, it would not be a surprise to see Jonny Evans leave the club in the summer with an established centre-back almost a certainty to arrive.
3) Growth & Continuity
It’s no surprise to many who are aware of Van Gaal’s previous tenures around Europe that, after a shaky start, United have grown in confidence and started to deliver, not just as a team, but individually as well.
It’s also no coincidence that United’s impressive form has come on the back of a settled system and a settled side. Michael Carrick’s presence is invaluable and it proved so again on Sunday. Ashley Young and Marouane Fellaini appear re-born and the relationship between Juan Mata and an ever-improving Ander Herrera is a joy to watch. With nothing else to concentrate on other than the Premier League, it would be surprising if there were many changes to the side for the rest of the season, and rightly so. The team is growing in confidence with each game and continuity of selection has played a big part in that.
4) Balance, Philosophy & Character
As former Red Gary Neville said, United didn’t just out-work City, they out-played them. The 4-3-3 system which the Reds’ Dutch manager has settled upon (perhaps through necessity with injuries) is being executed with confidence and ruthless precision.
With Michael Carrick providing a shield to the defence and dictating play in possession, Ashley Young and Juan Mata providing width allowing Fellaini and Herrera to find pockets of space, there is a real balance to the side and it’s paying dividends.
Van Gaal’s philosophy may have taken some time to take effect, but fans are witnessing it in full flow at present. Perhaps most crucial of all, however, has been the character that the side have shown.
Make no mistake, the Dutchman inherited an unbalanced squad with confidence at rock-bottom. It has taken time, but the former Barcelona manager has re-instilled the confidence and winning mentality. After a blistering start from City and a largely disappointing previous 18 months, many may have thought that United might crumble. Not this time, Manchester United look like Manchester United again; and for that Louis van Gaal deserves huge credit.
5) Big Game Brilliance
One huge positive this season, regardless of United’s final position in the league table come May, has been their form against their closest rivals. Wins away at Arsenal, Liverpool and Southampton have been complimented by victories at Old Trafford against Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester City.
An under-performing United battled to a draw at home to Chelsea and a valiant 10-man effort nearly snatched a point at the Etihad. With games against the current leaders Chelsea and the form team Arsenal still to come, the Reds will be in confident mood.
Against City, United proved that they are once again ready to mix it with the best in the Premier League, and with more changes expected in the summer, the Old Trafford Faithful can look forward to the next campaign full of optimism.