Manchester United earned the bragging rights in the Manchester derby thanks in no small part to the attacking intent with which Sir Alex Ferguson set his side up. The United manager was criticised for the negative approach he deployed in the corresponding fixture with Manchester City last season, but this time round gave his side the tools needed to secure what ended up being a last-gasp victory.
Wayne Rooney was instrumental in United’s success going forward, opening the scoring in the 16th minute with a breakaway goal following some sustained pressure from the home side. His control and finish into the corner proved a huge turning point as United gained momentum and took the pressure off their backline. Rooney was used as a withdrawn striker in a true No 10 role, at times lending support to the central midfield pairing of Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley, but crucially providing a creative link for the visitors.
A noticeable difference between this season and last was the presence of the supremely talented Robin van Persie as the spearhead of United’s attack. Last April at the Etihad the Reds were often pinned back as they were on Sunday, and had no outlet on which to focus their counters. On this occasion Ferguson could call on van Persie, who was coveted by Roberto Mancini in the summer but instead chose Old Trafford. The Dutchman is one of the world’s finest strikers, always composed in possession and lethal with his finish, and it was his inch-perfect chest down to Ashley Young that led to United’s opener.
Young himself built on his recent improving form, and repaid Ferguson’s faith to start him. The manager could have gone with a narrower setup to load his midfield, but instead utilised two wingers in a 4-4-1-1 formation that gave United options both on the break and in possession. Antonio Valencia was another positive inclusion, a surprise starter following a hip injury and a player who was dropped last season in a line-up that saw Park Ji-Sung, Ryan Giggs and Luis Nani included ahead of the Ecuadorian.
Valencia was involved in the build up for the second goal, feeding Rafael da Silva who supplied Rooney with the centre to stroke home. Rafael represented another sign of attacking intent on Ferguson’s behalf, instead of going with Chris Smalling or Phil Jones at right-back, both of whom are more defensively minded compared to the Brazilian. Had the manager gone with a negative mindset, the outcome may well have been the same as last time round, with a blunted United team unable to counter effectively after soaking up City’s pressure.
Once the Blues had built up a head of steam and drawn level it appeared there would only be one winner, but then van Persie stepped up to score the winner from a free-kick deep into added time. Earlier he had nearly given United what would have been a surely unassailable 3-0 lead with a dipping right-footed curler that struck the inside of the post, the rebound of which Young finished off only to be incorrectly ruled offside.
Thankfully for United, the decision did not end up costing them a game that they had under control at that point, with Ferguson’s attacking team selection almost helping the visitors to a three goal lead, but for the linesman’s flag. Instead, it was down to van Persie to add to Rooney’s brace and reward his manager with a dramatic derby victory.
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