It’s been a long time since Manchester United doled out a ‘thrashing’ in this fixture. The scoreline itself is something of a misnomer; Manchester City started this game well, and ended it with a man advantage, but in reality, despite only two goals separating the sides, the disparity between the two halves of Manchester at full time was far greater than it suggests. Despite the good form that Louis van Gaal’s side were enjoying prior to 4pm this afternoon, the way in which victory was secured after four straight defeats at City’s hands was a surprise. A glorious, exhilarating, satisfying surprise.
Of course, the sense of deja vu in the opening exchanges from last season’s 0-3 stroll at Old Trafford was overwhelming. Jesus Navas should have opened the scoring in a similarly early fashion to Edin Dzeko thirteen months ago, Fernandinho’s high ball deceived Daley Blind with David de Gea blocking the Spaniard’s shot when clean through. Three minutes later, City were ahead thanks to Sergio Aguero’s first goal since February after David Silva had delayed his pass across United’s six-yard box to perfection. It was fully deserved, given the reigning champions’ blistering start. They had pressed, harried and pushed the home side into mistakes that they hadn’t made recently, and looked capable of recording a fourth straight win at the home of their nearest rivals.
Understandably, the joy that swept around Old Trafford when Ashley Young equalised on fourteen minutes was unbridled. De Gea’s hefty clearance eventually found the excellently placed Ander Herrera, whose cross met Young’s boot. Gael Clichy’s unlucky deflection allowed one of Van Gaal’s greatest success stories this season to fire home, and the cross that landed on Marouane Fellaini’s head for United’s second before the half hour mark was even better. After a delightful one-two Daley Blind inside City’s penalty area, Young’s cross exposed Clichy again and the Belgian headed in number.
The visitors had reason to grumble; Fellaini was borderline offside when the cross was delivered, and Juan Mata was ahead of City’s faltering backline when he fired in United’s third. Yet the absent Vincent Kompany was perhaps lucky to have been removed from proceedings at half time via substitution as opposed to a red card for a reckless challenge on Blind. The Spaniard is developing a comforting habit of being in the right place at the right time in a red shirt, and the way in which he delayed his strike until he was almost upon Joe Hart before sliding the ball home was delicious, another wonderful end to a slick, incisive move.
Yet even at 3-1, United weren’t finished. Chris Smalling, the villain of City’s 1-0 win at the Etihad in November for two foolish bookings nodded home Young’s free kick unchallenged with a little over fifteen minutes to go, with the sight of Silva, weakly asking the referee’s assistant for a flag that was never coming summing up his side’s limp resistance perfectly. That was until Aguero added a late second.
By that point, United had used all three of their substitutions and had lost Michael Carrick to injury, but the Argentine’s 100th goal in blue, a result of Pablo Zabaleta’s precise cutback and shot that De Gea tipped onto the inside of the post was barely noted as the visitors trudged back to the halfway line. Psychologically, City looked shot, losing a sixth game in eight, and even with stoppage time to come and with a numerical advantage in their favour, there was no fight left in them. That, with Manuel Pellegrini’s job security now best described as tenuous, was damning.
But little can detract from the ferocity of United’s display. Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao’s late introductions were merely a part of the celebrations after Young, Fellaini, Herrera and Mata’s contributions. The turnaround from last month’s defeat to Arsenal in the FA Cup has been startling; Van Gaal’s possessional football is now brimming with purpose and cutting edge, with United suddenly looking a match for the Premier League’s best. Chelsea are unlikely to be caught this term, but for the first time in the two years since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, the red half of Manchester seems to have a plan. That it appears to have finally ended City’s stuttering title defence, given the beatings United fans have endured over the last few years, makes it all the sweeter.