The 170th Manchester derby will be remembered for several reasons: it was not of the demolition variety that the supporters have been used to witnessing in recent years, as Gary Neville or someone who tried to sound like Gary Neville called it ‘a game of chess‘ on a football pitch. It was a chess game, indeed. Played in Red and Blue on a green piece of land, where the two most expensively assembled sides in England canceled each other out, in what was a nearly flawless defensive performance from both sides, to put a positive spin on it.
For a few Manchester United fans, it’s a case of dilemma, where some would tell you it was a good point against the league leaders, quite unlucky as on another day, Joe Hart probably wouldn’t have rushed out in time to brilliantly thwart Mata’s otherwise slow reaction in front of goal, unmarked; or Jesse Lingard would have flicked it into the net rather than hitting the bar; or Rooney would have done more than just watch the game happen around him. But for a majority of others, it was pedestrian going forward as it has been for most of the last 18 months. Though the cynic in me thought United should have got more out of it with the opposition there for the taking without their two best players, I did manage to grab a few positives out of the derby and found myself asking questions that can only be answered by the manager himself.
As positives go, it looks like Marcos Rojo has started to look more assured again, on the ball and off it. It was a vital game for him amidst speculation of a rift between him and the manager all over the press, but he managed to pass the De Bruyne test in flying colors, when he was, in truth, not expected to do so. Funny, what having a few able alternatives in the ranks can do, eh? He was switched on for most of the game, closed in on De Bruyne effectively, attempted more tackles than anyone else bar Morgan Schneiderlin on the pitch (3/10) so much that the Belgian hotshot had to switch flanks in the second half.
But what was more impressive on the day was how he was able to get behind Sagna, regularly overlapping Anthony Martial who had a great game again although largely wasted out on the flank. The Argentine made four crosses but none of those found a red shirt on the day.
As dismal as it seems, it was not, as this would have been the case even for Luke Shaw or another left-back when the forward you’re supposed to find is a 30-year old less mobile Wayne Rooney. Besides tackles and pseudo-effective crosses, Rojo was generally more involved with two crucial interceptions and five clearances. He also managed to come out on top in all three aerial duels showing his versatility as a defender.
The fans were certainly impressed and more relieved of the fact that Manchester United could actually cope with the absence of Luke Shaw – now that Rojo has shown he could do a good job filling the Shaw shaped void in the side. The manager showed his appreciation too, in his post-match presser when he singled out the Argentine for praise. The Dutchman said,
“It is only his third game this season; he has hardly played for 90 minutes. I am very happy that at last he has the condition to play a full match.”
The 25-year old sounded content himself on social media on the back of a solid defensive performance against the best side in the league despite all the uncertainty and criticism associated with him. With a long season ahead of him, it is up to him now to keep himself fit and embrace the opportunity and make that left-back spot his own, for the near future. But it was not just him that caught the eye on Sunday. Just how good was Morgan Schneiderlin again, in that midfield? The Frenchman carried himself well on the pitch, constantly hounding the ball, not giving Yaya Toure a moment’s peace in the middle.
The 25-year old attempted six tackles on the pitch with 40% success, made one clearance, and four interceptions in the middle of the park in an all-round performance that makes you wonder why he, of all people, was rested for the game against Arsenal. Not to mention, this was his 3rd brilliant and composure-laden performance on the bounce, including the games at Goodison Park and Arena Khimki. Settling in was never issue for the Frenchman, thanks to a long spell with Southampton across various tiers of English Football but upping his level was, and now it looks he could be the Red Devils’ most important midfielder for the next 3-4 years.
The derby ended 0-0 provoking more questions than a 0-0 should. Did either side deserve to take home all three points? No. But could United have done so? Possibly, and had they not tried too hard to accommodate their captain, by effectively isolating a 19-year old with actual pace and skill to go past defenders. Having said that, the red half of Manchester can be content with that display of unrelenting focus at the back and with 28 games to go and just two points from the top, you would expect things to get better by the time when the teams meet again at the Etihad Stadium.