In his private moments, Louis van Gaal will be given to thinking that there are times when his Manchester United side look every inch a team who fit their club’s history, with improbable fightbacks, thrilling passages of play and an unwillingness to be beaten no matter what the odds.
If only he could cut out his team’s moments of unpardonable stupidity, then the Dutchman might just be on to something. As it is, for every moment of promise for the new United manager, there is also the vision of Chris Smalling lunging into a woeful tackle while already on a booking and then waiting, dull-eyed and resigned, for the inevitable red card.
United were once the match-winning machine who observed the basic rule that the more they controlled the game, the longer they stuck to the plan, then the greater the chance that they would emerge the winners. The chaos, they left to others. But that has become their way now, as it was on Sunday, shooting themselves in the foot, binding up the wound and fighting on.
The reality is that they lost, and when it mattered Manchester City took advantage of their extra man, closed out the points and moved up to third in the Premier League table. Sergio Aguero’s goal was no less than he deserved, especially given that the referee, Michael Oliver, had three times turned down clear penalties for City in the wake of Smalling’s first-half dismissal.
The game’s only goal, coming after the hour, should have been the preface to a United collapse. Instead it precipitated their best period of the game in which, led by Wayne Rooney, they very nearly salvaged a point. Much of what they did defied logic in the way that, pre-2008, City’s occasional derby victories were chaotic, spirited efforts to upset a more powerful neighbour.
The first hour belonged to City and with more care about their chances, and better decisions from Oliver, they would have been out of sight. Aguero proved too difficult for United to handle.
Yet after Smalling was sent off, the home side failed to put their old enemy away and very nearly paid the price. Missing David Silva in particular, there was a lack of ruthlessness from Manuel Pellegrini’s team.
Nevertheless, this was a key victory for City given those previous defeats by West Ham in the league and Newcastle in the Capital One Cup. They played some fine football in the first hour and, when it mattered, their defence stood strong against a resurgent United. They are not going quietly in the wake of Chelsea’s turbo-charged start, although City are not the team they were last season.
As for United, what is there to say about Smalling and his one-man effort to torpedo his own side’s game plan? His dismissal knocked the balance of an intriguing game off its axis. These were two yellow cards born of two diabolical misjudgements; two lamentable mistakes that comprised the equal halves of what one would confidently describe as the classic defensive shambles.
His first was an attempt to nudge the ball out of the hands of Joe Hart as the goalkeeper drop-kicked it, a practice referees have considered an infringement of the rules from as recently as the 1970s. His second was a tackle on James Milner that was so late, referee Oliver could comfortably have had the cards out of his pocket before the City man hit the ground.
Van Gaal does not need two decades in management to know that the best-laid plans come to nought when your centre-half has not the wit to stay on the pitch for 90 minutes.
Rooney played in midfield from the start, with a brief to support Robin van Persie when he could, and the Englishman was moved out to the left for the second half. He is not a midfielder. He was played there because it was Van Gaal’s compromise to get both Rooney and Van Persie into the side, but the more the game opened up, the more Rooney forced his way in.
Up to Smalling’s sending-off, City had enjoyed the best of it and United had withstood largely because of David de Gea. The United goalkeeper had made three fine first-half saves from Aguero, the best of which was the third, bravely coming out to block the ball and taking a boot in the thigh.
What followed the dismissal was United’s desperate re-organisation, combined with no little good fortune. It was then that City had their initial two valid penalty claims, the first against Marouane Fellaini for a foul on Aguero. After that Van Gaal replaced Adnan Januzaj with Michael Carrick, obliged to make his comeback in central defence, in a 10-man team, away to the champions.
The second penalty appeal was for Marcos Rojo’s foul on Yaya Touré, running on to Stevan Jovetic’s chip into the box. Had it been a penalty, it would have been a red card too and in that moment you got the impression that Oliver felt United had suffered enough.
They were about to suffer a lot more when, 10 minutes into the second half, Rojo launched a wild challenge at Martin Demichelis and dislocated his shoulder in the process. In his place came Paddy McNair, the bright 19-year-old from Northern Ireland who can hardly argue that his young career has been allowed to develop in a stable, nurturing first-team environment.
There was a third penalty appeal for City minutes later when Carrick clearly tripped Aguero but Oliver was in a forgiving mood yet again.
There was no stopping the Argentine for his goal three minutes after the hour, however. Touré played in Gaël Clichy down the left and he took his cross first time. In the box, Aguero stepped away from McNair and struck the ball on the half-volley to beat De Gea.
In the last 20 minutes, United came alive. Van Persie beat two players down the right and had his shot from a tight angle saved by Hart. On 77 minutes Rooney embarked on the kind of run that was reminiscent of his teenage self at Euro 2004, including him slipping the ball between the feet of Vincent Kompany. He did not have room for the shot, but Van Persie poked it wide to Angel di Maria, whose strike was saved.
There were chances for City too, most notably for Jesus Navas and Touré. More difficult to explain was how United found themselves back in the game, evidence at least for Van Gaal that some of the old fire from the Sir Alex Ferguson era burns on. Sam Wallace