Manchester City returned to the Premier League summit this afternoon, after a dour scoreless draw against rivals Manchester United – in which both sides’ only effort on target arrived in the final ten minutes.
Manuel Pellegrini set his side up to avoid defeat, with both Fernando and Fernandinho fielded at the base of midfield in a compact 4-4-1-1. Luckily for him, the risk-averse Louis Van Gaal wasn’t about to make that task a particularly difficult one to achieve.
At least the Dutchman’s side showed more attacking intent than they had on Wednesday night against CSKA Moscow. The Russians had set up quite similarly to City here – packing the centre of the pitch and leaving space out wide. Space that United consistently failed to exploit, owing mainly to the maddeningly restrained positioning of their full-backs.
Here, Valencia and Rojo played much higher from the off, with the former the focus of much of United’s attacking play in the first-half. The Ecuadorian overlapped to deliver two crosses from the byline in the early going, which the City back-line defended comfortably.
City, like United, also funneled the majority of their attacking play down the flanks, as both midfields cancelled each other out – with City’s Fernandinho particularly to the fore in denying space to his opposite numbers. The visitors’ best chance of the half – just before the break – arrived on the counter from Kevin De Bruyne’s right-wing cross. Yaya Touré, fielded at number ten today, failed to sweep the ball into the net from the edge of the United area.
While he might have created City’s best chance of the half, this was not a stellar showing from the young Belgian by any means. Fielded on the right, De Bruyne was subject to the aggressive pressing of Marcos Rojo, who consistently got a foot in quickly to prevent City’s form player from enjoying any time on the ball.
De Bruyne, like Anthony Martial, arrived into this clash having notched five goals in his first ten appearances for his new club – but it was the young Frenchman who emerged from today’s exchanges with the greater credit.
Martial finished today’s game with seven successful dribbles – five more than any other player on the pitch – earning both Fernanindho and Vincent Kompany a spot in the referee’s notebook in the process. Van Gaal, realising his potential to break the deadlock, instructed his side to switch the focus of their attacking play to his left-flank in the second half. Immediately, the hosts looked more dangerous – Martial showing incredible close control and a deft flick to take two City defenders out of the game and set up Ander Herrera for United’s first shot in anger. Yes, United attempted precisely zero shots on Joe Hart’s goal in the first-half – for the first time since Opta came into existence.
Yet, despite glimpsing promising signs down the left, United were again bafflingly positionally reserved. Moments before that Herrera strike, Marcos Rojo had advanced to deliver an excellent cross into the City penalty area – only to see nobody attempt to attack it.
United’s forays down the left were also helped by Yaya Touré’s refusal to track the advancing Bastian Schweinsteiger, who got in behind the City midfield on several occasions in and around the hour-mark. Van Gaal soon solved this problem for his visitors however – reverting again to the 4-1-4-1 formation he resorted to on Wednesday night, by removing the German in favour of Marouane Fellaini. Pellegrini, to his credit, immediately responded through the introduction of Martin Demichelis into the midfield fray to mark the big Belgian. Touré, to the surprise of no-one, was the one hooked.
Eventually, in the last ten minutes, the game – and everybody watching – woke up. City finally hit the target through substitute Jesus Navas’ speculative strike from range in the 81st minute. And then, with five to go, Martial struck again – lofting the game’s first and only attempted through ball, matched by a brilliant diagonal run from Jesse Lingard. The United substitute, who had run off the back of Kolarov, struck the woodwork with his resulting effort.
Moments later, City could have snatched it themselves. Wayne Rooney, who had been relentlessly tracked deep by the pro-active Nicolas Otamendi all afternoon, turned the tables on his foe briefly by preventing him from converting Kolarov’s free-kick at the back-post.
And finally, a minute later, United went closer from a free-kick of their own – when Fellaini rose above Kompany to head back to Smalling. The United centre-back, who was dismissed in the reverse fixture last year, forced an excellent low save from Joe Hart – securing the City goalkeeper’s 100th clean sheet for the club.
That, mercifully, was that. Manchester City achieved the draw they set out for – returning to the summit of the Premier League table in the process. Louis Van Gaal’s United, as has become customary now, were too risk-averse to attempt to turn one point into three. Manuel Pellegrini will be delighted. For Van Gaal, this is the second time in a week when questions must be raised about his disproportionate conservatism.