Points to digest from United’s disappointing performance at the Etihad.
What was the end result was not quite how it seemed it might be. There was a definite sense of optimism when the line-up was announced. The pace in the front line from three players that supporters have been demanding to see start together suggested United would be more positive than the cumbersome display at—for example—Anfield.
And for twenty minutes or so United did look as dangerous as their hosts. City had the ball and United appeared to have the penetration, as Martial and Rashford caused problems in their wide positions, catching the City defenders off-guard as Mhikitaryan was deployed as a decoy in the central role.
In the first half Martin Atkinson was particularly generous with a number of decisions when United’s forwards turned their markers. Most occasions the free kick wasn’t awarded and even when it was, the cynical challenges were allowed to be committed without any further punishment. This lack of protection meant an injury was always more likely and it seemed to affect Rashford midway through the first half, as noted by his movement into the central role. There is no doubting that this had an impact on United’s ability to stretch the game as they had planned.
That’s not to say that United ought to be applauded for any attacking intention because once this threat was dealt with, Jose Mourinho simply went safety first, and that led to a tremendously arduous hour or so. Whilst the stats and shot accumulation tells the story of a game dominated, City rarely looked like they would inevitably break through. It didn’t make it any easier to sit through and in the circumstances United fans may have a right to ask that their manager should have had an alternative attacking solution; that said, when doing so, they should remember who their manager was, and his post match interview showed he was completely unapologetic in his approach.
Of course Paul Pogba’s absence was bemoaned but the harsh truth is that he may not have been able to influence the game anyway. United were not imposing their style on the opponent and so rarely got into the sort of positions where Pogba has flourished this season. Had he played, would he have made a positive difference? Perhaps, but one is left to consider the likelihood of that game unfolding any differently whatever the selection.
There has been a lot of speculation about the future of both goalkeepers and while Bravo continued to demonstrate why he is so unsteady, David De Gea gave a bit of a lesson at the other end in how a defence benefits from being assured of their goalkeeper behind them. Speculation of the goalkeeper moving has led to some to even suggest replacing him won’t be the issue most think it will be, citing his starting position and tendency to get beat at his near post as areas he could still improve upon.
However you can’t underestimate the power of security and how that instils confidence in a defence that is desperate for it. Allowing De Gea to leave, as seems the likely outcome this summer, presents a new defensive headache for the manager when he is already preparing to conduct major surgery in that area.
Where to begin? Well, first, with the antagonist of the opposition. Yes, Sergio Aguero played his part and exaggerated his reaction. But by that point Maruoane Fellaini was almost certainly going to be sent off, whether it was for the third foul in a matter of seconds, or even simply receiving a second yellow card for the motion of putting his head towards the City forward.
In the space of a minute Fellaini had accumulated so many stupid decisions that a red card was inevitable, evoking memories of Chris Smalling on this ground a couple of years ago. The difference is that Smalling’s was out of character at the time and there was hope he would improve. Fellaini is always capable of this and these moments are more than once a season. His United career seemed over when his short cameo at Goodison Park proved to be extremely costly and the three match ban – which will probably extended to four due to his initial refusal to leave the pitch – has led to many hoping that it will be the last time he will be seen in a red shirt (in the league, at least).
It is difficult to argue a case for his continued career at the club because even his positive traits come with negative caveats. He is physical which is uncomfortable for his opponents but it means nothing by itself. More often than not his physical presence causes him to get stupid or early yellow cards and so in those situations an already limited player has cause to play within himself. If you wanted something else to praise him you would say he has an aerial presence, but that terminology is generous to the extreme; a presence suggests it instils a fear in the opposition but Fellaini is simply tall. His headers in the middle of the park are often directionless and when he is up in the box for corners he lacks the conviction you would want, particularly in compensation for his other limitations. The most damning thing to say is a selection for Fellaini means that another more talented midfielder is not in the side.
In ordinary circumstances you would feel that his time would be up but curiously and frustratingly you get the impression that he is Mourinho’s United version of John Obi Mikel. For some reason he likes him and plays him, not only in big games or in games United will need a spoiler. And the half a dozen heart in mouth moments are often overlooked by the odd positive contribution, which seems particularly appealing to the manager who likes to have that conviction. The question really is whether Fellaini is worth the continued investment and place in the squad. The resounding answer outside Carrington may be no but you get the feeling he will remain anyway.