Manchester City corrected their recent wobble with a derby victory that was neither unexpected nor straightforward, despite their visitors having a man sent off before half-time. This was a game of three thirds. An intriguing tactical battle until Chris Smalling's gormless 38th-minute second yellow, it became merely a question of time before Sergio Aguero's inevitable goal… but soon afterwards, the champions retreated into their shell and only just survived a spirited comeback from a makeshift United side.
The visitors' line-up had always smacked of the ersatz. With Rafael and Phil Jones injured, Antonio Valencia filled in at right-back; meanwhile, Wayne Rooney played in a midfield three (with Daley Blind and Marouane Fellaini).
It is to their credit that those players performed impassively in those roles, and it was hardly scrabbling down the back of the sofa for coins – by some calculations, this was the most expensive starting XI in Premier League history at £241 million – but it does make you wonder what a difference it would make for Louis van Gaal to have a fit and balanced squad.
By contrast, when City lost Aleksandar Kolarov in the warm-up, they simply replaced him with Gael Clichy, while compensating for the absence of David Silva by playing James Milner and Jesus Navas as wingers, Stevan Jovetic dropping off Aguero up top to balance the need for midfield numbers with Manuel Pellegrini's determination to attack at home.
To begin with, however, United had more of the ball – although usually too far back to worry City. And on the half-hour, as the champions started to come into the game, Smalling made a decision that will haunt him all week, if not to the end of an Old Trafford career he may have unwittingly foreshortened.
By blocking Joe Hart's attempted drop-kick (leading to the furious City goalkeeper curiously leaning his head into referee Michael Oliver's face), Smalling picked up a yellow card that led many to wonder how he would cope with an hour against Aguero. They needn't have worried.
Eight minutes later, Milner pushed the ball past Smalling and the United man hacked him down. Cue a second yellow, a third red of the season for United (more than any other Premier League side), and Smalling getting the cold treatment from Van Gaal and Giggs, both of whom ignored him as he walked past on the way off.
In his pre-match press conference the Dutchman had stressed the need not to go down to 10 men in the heat of the derby; in a post-match interview he would describe Smalling's actions as "not very smart".
Meantime United had to reshuffle, with Marouane Fellaini dropping into the backline until Adnan Januzaj was sacrificed for another makeshift centre-back, Michael Carrick, who duly became the 31st player Van Gaal has used in this league campaign.
But not before Fellaini had felled Aguero in one of a number of penalty claims turned down by Oliver, possibly still blinded by the Head & Shoulders in his eyes.
City's onslaught continued after the break, and so did United's defensive depletion. When Marcos Rojo rather rashly threw himself into a tackle he was nowhere near winning, it momentarily left his thrown-together defence down to three against four City forwards.
Although they survived that, Rojo had ripped his shoulder and departed on a stretcher, replaced by Paddy McNair. United's defence now consisted of two midfielders and two 19-year-olds.
Not unsurprisingly, and despite the sleeves-up determination of top tacklers Rooney and Fellaini in front of them, that lashed-together backline couldn't hold out.
On 63 minutes, City put together a 16-pass move which ended with Yaya Toure – exemplary throughout in his passing – releasing Clichy, who had escaped the underimpressive Angel Di Maria, to pull back for Aguero to hammer home his 11th goal in 12 league games and his sixth in seven derbies.
That might have been the cue for City to destroy their eternal enemies, who now had to come out of their desperately defensive shell. Instead, the champions ceded control, not helped by Pellegrini's changes: first sacrificing the savvy Milner for the tentative Samir Nasri, then linkman Jovetic for frontman Dzeko, then goalscorer Aguero for Fernandinho (to predictable hoots of derision from Chelsea fans who remember the Chilean's jibe about "playing like a small club").
The net effect of those changes, the last fortnight's results and 40-odd years of turning victory into defeat was a nervous final 20 minutes for the hosts against 10 men in a makeshift line-up. True, their shot total of 16 equals their best in the league this term, and they won't look back in anguish if this kick-starts a winning run, but this was not the stuff of champions.
Over in the west of the city, there are other worries. After spending £122m net in the summer, United have earned just 13 points from their first 10 league games – their worst start since the one that got Ron Atkinson sacked, 28 years ago on Thursday.
The injuries don't help but £60m Di Maria's showing provoked disdain on social media, while their sometime talisman Robin van Persie barely touched the ball for the middle third of the game and was later replaced by another teenager. Van Gaal still has much work to do.
- No Premier League team has had more players sent off in 2014 than Manchester United (5, level with Newcastle, Spurs and Swansea).
- Chris Smalling was sent off for the first time in the Premier League, becoming the 26th United player to be sent off in the competition.
- Smalling’s red card was the earliest in Premier League Manchester derby history.
- Only against Liverpool (9) have Man United had more players sent off than they have v City (6) in the Premier League.
- Man United’s first shot on target came in the 70th minute (Van Persie). City had had 6 by that point.
- Sergio Aguero has scored 11 goals in his last 12 Premier League games.
- The Argentine striker has also scored 5 in 6 league games against Man United.
- Man City are only the second team in Premier League history (after Liverpool) to win 4 consecutive games against Man United.
- Man City have won 6 and lost just 1 of the last 7 Premier League Manchester derbies.
- The Citizens have won 4 consecutive league games against the Red Devils for the first time since December 1970.
- 13 points from 10 games is Man United’s worst start to a campaign since 1986/87, when they had eight at this stage and finished the season 11th.
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