By Matthew Galea
It might have “only” been the EFL Cup, Pep Guardiola might have “only” played some of Manchester City’s kids (Willy Caballero (35), Nicolas Otamendi (28), Vincent Kompany (30), Fernando (29), Nolito (30) and Jesus Navas (30) and Gael Clichy (31) for starters), but this was a game and a derby that Manchester United simply could not lose.
Thankfully, United got the win and they did it with considerable style, too, as Juan Mata’s goal in a 1-0 win proved decisive.
A derby win and a clean sheet was just what the doctor ordered following the horror of United’s defensive display in a 4-0 hammering at Stamford Bridge and will hopefully set the tone for the weeks to come.
Here were our five lessons from the win.
A WORD OF CAUTION
The importance of the win, no matter the stature of the EFL Cup, is hard to overstate, but football is a game of fine margins and while for the most part United’s performance was good there were some concerning aspects of the game.
City played a vastly more experienced side than some pundits would have you believe, but there is no point in pretending that this was Pep’s first XI.
Mourinho hardly fielded his first XI either, but moreso out of necessity than choice. Marcos Rojo had to play at centre-back with Eric Bailly out and Chris Smalling having played so poorly at Stamford Bridge, while Michael Carrick was handed a rare start in midfield.
Still, there is no doubting United played a stronger side than City and that absolutely played a hand in the result – not just because United fielded better players on the day but also because some of the players Pep picked were not able to ruthlessly punish United’s mistakes (no matter how few) like David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne or Raheem Sterling might have.
Daley Blind was guilty of turning the ball over in defensive transition on more than one occasion while Antonio Valencia – who enjoyed a pretty good game – also lost possession close to United’s defensive third with simple, misplaced passes.
Even match-winner Mata – who was another who played a good game – stupidly gave the ball away in United’s defensive half with a horrible square pass that went right between the defensive and midfield lines of United and straight to an opponent.
A win is a win is a win, and this was certainly an important one for team and fan morale as much as anything, but it does no one any favours to pretend this was a masterful performance against the strongest City side possible.
CARRICK IMPRESSES AGAIN
At Stamford Bridge last Sunday, Jose Mourinho opted for the strength and “energy” of Marouane Fellaini over the tested class and quality of Michael Carrick. It seemed like the wrong decision when the line-ups were announced and if Fellaini’s performance showed why he should not be trusted on the big occasion, then Carrick’s performance against City showed why the Englishman should.
Carrick seems happy to bide his time and play as required for Mourinho, but as long as he keeps being one of United’s best on the pitch when he starts, the question will remain – how long until Carrick is re-instated as a Premier League starter?
Ander Herrera already provides all the hustle and bustle United need in midfield and a lack of pace has never hurt Carrick’s ability before. He is twice as quick as just about every opponent he faces in the mind and that allows him to be one of United’s most effective interceptors and once on the ball his decision making and ability to execute is almost flawless.
Mourinho really has not gotten all that much wrong since taking over at United, but the one that continues to perplex is the seemingly inverted use of Carrick and Fellaini. It should be Carrick in line for Premier League starts and Fellaini who should be saved for the lesser occasion. The Belgian has already proven this season it is in those games he is most effective.
It would not be fair to talk about Carrick without mentioning Herrera and has already been pointed out, the Spaniard plays like he is after Mourinho’s own heart.
Herrera won the fans over early after his arrival at United, but despite almost always having a positive impact on matches he played in, he just never seemed to be able to convince Louis van Gaal of his merits.
He is having no such problem with Mourinho, and another outstanding performance means he is surely a nailed on starter whenever fit. In fact, he might even be the first name on the teamsheet.
ROJO QUIETLY PLEASES
As already stated, United did not face the meanest of City attacks, but whatever they could muster was effectively shut down by the surprisingly impressive Rojo.
The Argentinean is normally one of the first names to be written off when discussing players in the current squad not up to United standards, but he hit back at his detractors with comfortably his best performance of the season.
The reality is the bullish defender is hard at the ball and good in the tackle, without much in the way of on-ball skill or end product in the final third. Considering that, it should probably be no surprise that his best performance this season came at centre-back instead of left-back.
A welcome performance and option with Eric Bailly now out for two months.
TWO SIDES OF IBRA
Zlatan Ibrahimovic has struggled in front of goal for United in recent weeks and that continued at Old Trafford on Wednesday.
The difference this time was in his link-up play with team-mates and his overall effort. Ibrahimovic – admittedly after a terrible first half – was a much more prominent feature in United’s play in the final third and his assist for Mata’s winner was a solid reward for his efforts.
He might have had another assist had Paul Pogba managed to finish a glorious opportunity which was only denied by a solid save by the City goalkeeper.
But still, the Swede’s habit of missing good chances, as he did when Marcus Rashford provided a stunning cross from the right wing, is concerning.
At least he was back to his charismatic best, getting under the skin of the City players and letting Nicolas Otamendi know exactly what he and every other Red thought of his pathetic histrionics.