Premier League: Manchester United's win over City, recent run of positive results down to their exceptional defence

One of the hallmarks of this run is Manchester United’s tight defence. And as any football manager or pundit, that’s worth his or her salt will tell you, the foundations of an improving team is built on its defence.

Srijandeep Das March 09, 2020 13:30:56 IST
Premier League: Manchester United's win over City, recent run of positive results down to their exceptional defence
  • Ole Gunnar Solksjaer’s charges played with the optimism of a dice roll. That paid off in the shape of Manchester United’s first goal on the 30th minute.

  • United will take heart from win against City, added to their recent run of competent results. One of the hallmarks of this run is Manchester United’s tight defence.

  • In Bruno Fernandes, Manchester United do have another Portuguese sweetheart in the making, but more importantly, a man who can fill the Paul Pogba shaped hole.

Manchester United won 2-0 vs Manchester City last night.

Premier League Manchester Uniteds win over City recent run of positive results down to their exceptional defence

Manchester United's Aaron Wan-Bissaka, City's Raheem Sterling compete for the ball. AP

It was almost as if the rain came down like a blanket of comfort despite the cold chills it sent up the skin of match-going fans. The last time it rained on a Manchester derby day in Old Trafford was around a decade ago, the last time Manchester United recorded a double over their City rivals. Since then, the chakra of time was turned, the shadowed canopy that the mighty Manchester United cast has been replaced by another – from its stem, a new culture of dominance sprouted. Like two trees joint at the hip. One shrinking, the other flowering with verdant green, Manchester City grew.

But when the rain fell last night with its entourage of grey clouds, all the colours around Old Trafford stadium were sprinkled with a livelier contrast and Manchester’s jersey glowed a brighter shade of red. Manchester City’s paled into a haze of blue and grey.

In the 90+5th minute, City goalkeeper’s Ederson’s errant throw’s power was exaggerated by the wind, and instead of finding the feet of Benjamin Mendy, the ball floated to Scott McTominay. Then came to a poignant split-second pause as the subbed-on man ran towards the ball. Ederson was off his line. In that split second highlight reels of Xabi Alonso vs Newcastle, Luis Suarez vs Norwich, Dejan Stankovic vs Schalke were projected on the mind-walls of the gathered football scribes in the press box. McTominay’s shot found its way into the net from a distance of 40 yards. The football displayed the arc of a golf ball, and obediently bounced into the net. Ederson, in a momentary lapse of reason (one too many on the night) forgot the most basic rule of hunting – always stay downwind.

This wasn’t City’s first miscalculation of the night. The first was to believe that a monopoly of the ball would mean a better result. Manchester United on most occasions has as little as 20 percent possession of the ball. Manchester City for most parts played better football than the men in red, but somehow still were left red in the face.

Raheem Sterling tasked as one of City’s primary provider of width and diagonal running, found his intentions intercepted like a pine tree intercepts a downhill skier. No half touch of the former Liverpool man was left uncontested by Aaron Wan Bissaka. United’s right-back was the Shinigami (Japanese death angel) to Sterling’s footballing soul, sucking out the last glimmer, snuffing the last shimmy. The winger was sidestepping more often than running forward.

There was an opportunity for Manchester City in the opening 10 minutes: Sergio Aguero dispossessed Luke Shaw to square the ball to Raheem Sterling, whose side-foot curler was finger-tipped away by a horizontal David De Gea. But since then that effort on the 10th minute, Wan Bissaka stuck to Sterling like chewing gum on the sole of a collectable sneaker.

That early shot was the wake-up call Manchester United needed. They responded with letting Manchester City have more of the ball, falling back into lines of four, compressing space, slowing down City’s off the ball movement. Manchester City, like a fly on a jar of sticky molasses, didn’t know it was trapped, but revelling in the sweet bounty of it all.

By the 30th minute, Manchester City were befuddled. All the pretty triangles, intricate patterns drawn with the ball to draw out Manchester United had little or no effect. Figuratively, Manchester City were trying to play poker at the roulette table. Manchester United’s gameplan was rooted in chance and guesswork, while City’s were in meticulous method. Ole Gunnar Solksjaer’s charges played with the optimism of a dice roll. That paid off in the shape of Manchester United’s first goal on the 30th minute.

Bruno Fernandes chipped the ball from a free-kick to the left of the box. The ball dipped onto the swishing shins of Anthony Martial and skid under Ederson’s glove and into the net. This routine could have come to nothing and ended with embarrassing anti-climatic results, but instead, as probability would have it, a half-hit shot from Martial was enough to power the ball past Ederson (the former best goalkeeper in the league). Eight out of 10 times, the ball would have been comfortably snuffed or at least parried by the Brazilian goaltender. But this time around, the winds of change were blowing United’s way, as were the roar of the crowd from the Stretford End.

“The desire, attitude, commitment, connection between fans and players pleased me most,” said the buzzing United manager. “We were aggressive in the press, we pushed them into corners, made them commit mistakes.” Last night went some way to heal the communion between an underachieving team and an ever disillusioned crowd at Old Trafford. There was an intangible but somehow palpable connection that has been missing for too long at United’s home ground. It was as if the spectators’ collective will was being manifested in the form of those 11 players in red.

“But it’s just one game,” Solskjaer was mindful to remind the press in the post-match interview. Just one match indeed. But United will take heart from it, added to their recent run of competent results. One of the hallmarks of this run is Manchester United’s tight defence. And as any football manager or pundit, that’s worth his or her salt will tell you, the foundations of an improving team is built on its defence.

Look at Manchester United’s fiercest rivals, Liverpool. They only truly started to become imperious after Virgil van Dijk and Joel Matip/Joe Gomez, shut the shutters down and started nothing up clean sheets. It also coincided with the flourish of Fabinho, the reinvention of Jordan Henderson, and Gini Wijnaldum, working in tandem to provide support either side.

In Bruno Fernandes, Manchester United do have another Portuguese sweetheart in the making, but more importantly, a man who can fill the Paul Pogba shaped hole, and the beginnings of a man who can reinstall the former glories of a Manchester United midfield that acted as the elastic band in team’s tactical slingshot.

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