Manchester United and Manchester City play out a dull 0-0 derby draw
MANCHESTER, England -- Three thoughts on a dull 0-0 draw between Manchester United and Manchester City at Old Trafford on Sunday.
1. The dullest derby ever?
There have been 170 Manchester derbies spread over 121 years. There is a strong case for arguing the best, whether Manchester United's 4-3 win in 2009 or Manchester City's 6-1 triumph in 2011, are among the most recent. Sunday's game ranked at the other end of the spectrum. The spectacular has been replaced by the subdued, the extraordinary by the very ordinary.
The 0-0 draw only briefly threatened to rise from mediocrity in the closing minutes, when Anthony Martial's gorgeous pass was first volleyed on to the bar by Jesse Lingard, and then, with a rather more direct approach, Marouane Fellaini found Chris Smalling with a flick-on and the defender's shot was tipped past the post by Joe Hart.
That apart, it was forgettable fare played by two cautious teams. Manuel Pellegrini, often an advocate of attacking football, set the tone when he submitted his team sheet and inserted Fernando, an extra defensive midfielder. By the time Martin Demichelis came off the bench to replace Yaya Toure, he had three.
Louis van Gaal, who relishes such tactical battles, is entitled to argue that his substitutions of Lingard and Fellaini almost conjured a winner, but familiar criticisms are valid. United were ponderous in possession, particularly in a dreadful first half. They scarcely played with the ambition of potential champions and swathes of the game went by with very little happening.
The result means United retain their excellent defensive record at Old Trafford, where they have conceded only one league goal, and City a two-point advantage over their neighbours. Sadly, studying the league table could be as enjoyable as watching the match.
There were penalty appeals, with Ander Herrera aghast that Mark Clattenburg did not deem Raheem Sterling's challenge on him a foul early in the second half. At either end, Yaya Toure and Smalling almost headed in corners, but should anyone purchase a DVD of the game, they may want to fast forward much of the first 80 minutes.
2. Martial looks lively on the left
United may not have secured much silverware since Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement, but they did parade one award winner before kickoff. Martial was presented with his trophy as the Premier League's player of the month for September, and while October's award may be bound for Jamie Vardy, the sense is that Martial will not prove a one-off winner.
In any case, "second-month syndrome" has brought a second position for Martial: September's striker has become October's winger. Van Gaal believes Martial can play in any of four positions: on either flank, as a striker or as a No. 10. Much of his brief stint with Monaco was spent on the left.
If Martial reprised an earlier role at Everton in part to stymie Seamus Coleman, here his immediate opponent was the less attacking Bacary Sagna. Van Gaal's deployment of the world's most expensive teenager could not be explained by his defensive duties alone.
Every United lineup can feel contrived as Van Gaal tries to find a way to accommodate Wayne Rooney, who entered his third decade of life much as he left his second, with the sort of performance that will only prompt further criticism of the United untouchable. Rooney had his head stapled after a collision with Vincent Kompany. He bled for the United cause but it rarely appeared he would score a record 12th derby goal.
Rooney was once their dynamic teenager. Now Martial, the £36 million man, plays that role. A slaloming solo run brought the crowd to life, and it seems as though it is Martial's task to electrify Old Trafford. He offers the acceleration in a three-speed attack, with Rooney and then Juan Mata operating in rather lower gears.
Martial's lithe changes of direction give him a capacity to skip away from opponents. Even those with a turn of pace themselves can be resorted to bringing him down and both Fernandinho and Kompany were cautioned for fouls on the 19-year-old. His creativity was also apparent, as he almost provided Lingard with a winner.
All in all, Martial's derby debut showcased his promise, but it would have been intriguing to see what he could have done if unleashed as the main striker.
3. Bony is no Aguero
At such exalted levels, players can be damned by comparison. Wilfried Bony is not Sergio Aguero, and suffers because of it. So did City as they lacked their premier striker -- United can be grateful his deputy is not in the same class.
The Argentinian has proved rather too elusive, as his tally of six goals in his last four derbies suggests. Bony does not offer such slippery speed, compensating with brute force. But with Daley Blind benched, United opted for bruisers of their own at the back in the sizeable figures of Phil Jones and Smalling.
As Bony struggled at Old Trafford, the threat once again came from De Bruyne, whose talents extend to offering menace in a variety of roles. But even the Belgian was betrayed by his final ball and was shackled well by Marcos Rojo; Pellegrini opted against moving him to the middle in place of Bony again when the ineffective Raheem Sterling was replaced instead. The Ivorian eventually departed for Kelechi Iheanacho in the closing minutes, meaning his City tally now stands at four goals in 22 games.
There is a case for selecting Bony against Crystal Palace in the Capital One Cup on Wednesday to try to spur him into form, but considering what a damp squib his City career has been thus far, some supporters would rather see the opportunity go to the talented teenager Iheanacho. Either way, Aguero's monthlong absence with a hamstring injury cannot end soon enough for City.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.