Before deciding to settle in and watch last Sunday’s Manchester derby, I had a suspicion it was going to be dreadful and it didn’t disappoint. Two teams intent on stopping the other side rather than imposing themselves on the game didn’t make for good watching unless you’re Gary Neville who declared it was one of the best games he’d seen this season. He may have a point; tactically it probably was an interesting game to cast your eyes over but at 2pm on a Sunday afternoon, I, and many others according to my Twitter feed, wanted a little more from a fixture that has delivered blood and thunder encounters in seasons gone by.
One bright spark in the drab encounter was Anthony Martial. Scepticism was rife when he was signed at the end of August. The apparent fee United paid Monaco varies from £28 million to £500 billion so believe what you want regarding how much they paid for him but whatever the price, the boy is talented. Currently deployed on the left wing with a license to move in field when the opportunity arises, Martial’s pace, trickery and intelligence with the ball is proving a threat to the majority of defences he’s come up against thus far. For a 19 year old who received so much negative press before he kicked a ball for United, he looks composed and settled just two months into his career in England. It bodes well for him and United but his form may well lead his manager needing to make a difficult decision. Will Louis van Gaal continue to deploy such an attacking talent on the left wing while Wayne Rooney struggles to rediscover any form whatsoever?
Last weekend, Palace came up against Jamie Vardy; a striker in the form of his life and playing with the sort of confidence that only fantastic form and goals will bring a striker. This weekend, we come up against a front man who, at the moment, can only dream of the run of form that Vardy is currently in. Wayne Rooney.
The dilemma is clear. Rooney is captain and to drop a captain, particularly of a club on the scale of Manchester United would be a huge deal. However, on current form, Rooney isn’t justifying his continued selection and the longer this barren run goes, the more of an issue it will become. There’s no doubting Rooney’s ability but now playing in his 14th Premier League, he’s yet to convince as a so called ‘number 9’. When he emerged as the next big thing at Everton, he was described as a mix of Paul Gascoigne and Peter Beardsley; two players who excelled in and around a central striker. Of course Rooney has scored goals while playing as a main striker but in the month the England captain turned 30, has the time come for Rooney to be deployed deeper?
It’s the sort of question that van Gaal is paid good money to answer and another poor performance by his captain this Saturday might quicken the speed in which the Dutchman will be required to supply such an answer.
With Chelsea’s implosion continuing week on week and Arsenal not sure whether they wish to be taken seriously this season, this season’s title race may well be ran in Manchester. Just two points separate the blue and red halves of the city and if last weekend’s meeting of the two sides is anything to go by, there isn’t much between the rivals.
Juggling domestic ambitions with their performances in the Champions League will also be crucial. Halfway through the group stage, United are on four points having won, lost and drawn one of their three games. Provided they manage to get into the knockout stages post-Christmas, van Gaal will need to rotate his squad accordingly if his side are to mount challenges in both domestic and European fronts.
United have been accused of playing some bland football this season. They have effective players all over the park and the likes of Michael Carrick, Bastian Schweingsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin are superb marshals in the middle of the park so if they are to be serious title contenders, they may well be reliant upon game management rather than the wonderful, instinctive attacking performances of United sides of season gone by.
Another key aspect to United’s title challenge will be the form of David De Gea. Having earned plaudit after plaudit last season having displayed great form throughout the whole season, De Gea was then embroiled in what became the transfer saga of the summer. At times it seemed a certainty that he would join Real Madrid; at times it seemed certain he would remain at Old Trafford for at least another season. The saga lasted until the last few minutes of the transfer window when miscommunication and a dodgy fax machine appeared to be at fault for the deal not going through.
Whatever the reasons for the move collapsing, the Spaniard remained a United player and having now been reinstated as their undisputed number one, he will be key for the rest of the season. He had some great moments last season, none more so than keeping his side level at Selhurst when denying Glenn Murray with one of the best saves Selhurst saw last campaign. His instinctive save down to his right hand side proved a turning point in that game and highlighted how a confident and in form goalkeeper can have an impact on a match.
In order to come away with that 2-1 win from Selhurst last May, van Gaal’s team were reliant upon what was one of the dodgiest dodgy penalties of the season and lumping it up to Fellaini at the back stick. Palace were excellent that day, particularly during the second half and warranted at least a point from the entertaining encounter.
A game of similar excitement this time around would be welcomed by all with tickets for the game; perhaps just a different result this time around.