The manner in which circumstances can change with the passage of time is absolutely remarkable. It is fair to say at the end of the last season the futures of Ashley Young and Marouane Fellaini were very much in doubt. Any future prospect of gaining traction at United lay in tatters, both men roundly mocked by fans and pundits alike.
Young was a despised diver-in-chief, roundly dismissed as a desperate cheat, who resorted to dark arts because his football had regressed to run of the mill back passes and an infuriating reluctance to take his man on - the wings of the former Aston Villa high flier seemingly clipped.
Young celebrates United's leveler against City on Sunday. Courtesy of J.Peters Getty Images
Fellaini had the undistinguished honor of being a David Moyes signing in an utterly botched transfer window – immediately labeled a panic buy. His clumsy displays in a deeper role didn’t help his cause either, at times he looked liked he’d never kicked a ball. His huge frame and unorthodox style of chest footy made him look amateurish as he ambled about the pitch.
Mata, to a lesser extent, was always under suspicion from some segments of United supporters. They distrusted his overall effectiveness, being that he was a Mourinho outcast, which usually meant that a player did not have the discipline, or willingness, to carry out the more sturdy duties on the field. He had the reputation of possessing the necessary guile, but was a bit of a lightweight and let large swaths of pitch go untended without the necessary defensive contribution.
Chris Smalling’s moment of madness in the last Manchester Derby at the Etihad, got Red Devils fans frustrated as United finally seemed to be finally standing their ground against their nouveau riche noisy city rivals on that day. The 10 Reds lost to City by a lone goal. Many reds swore he was, and will never be United caliber. They sneered at his non-league humble beginnings. The Fulham recruit was formerly a Maidstone United player. Like all the aforementioned players, Smalling was going through a crisis of confidence – and it showed.
Pellegrini had his plans for this derby. City, the champions, would come to Old Trafford and dominate in the early exchanges with shock and awe tactics. This would shellshock United who have had the shorter end of these derby results in recent times. The United of last season would have shriveled up and retreated after the first City goal from the ever-aware Aguero who profited from some slick passing between Milner and Silva, and poor positioning by both English center backs.
In the vintage Bruce Lee movies, opponents would deliver the haymaker deathblow with hopes of felling Lee in a single swoop. Lee would repel momentarily, literally lick his wound, and surge manically towards his assailant with seemingly supernatural reserves of power and strength. It was almost like the taste and smell of his blood induced an unearthly rage which fueled his retaliation binge. This is exactly what United did 6 minutes after City’s onslaught.
This Manchester United is decidedly more focused, more determined and callously undeterred. They in perfect unison are staunchly married to Van Gaal’s philosophy of triangular based possession football. One surgical punt from De Gea, cushioned by the velvet chest of Fellaini (who won 9 aerial duels compared to Toure’s 2), sent in by Blind, and “Young is there! Still there!! 1-1 United!” The level of dedication to manufacture a reply was evident in the way Young contorted his body to be able to meet the ball that landed fortuitously in his path.
Young will continue to cause havoc down Zabaleta’s wing, providing an accurate cross to Fellaini’s shaggy dome for United’s second as the Belgian made no mistake from point blank range. Clichy, it will seem, not wanting anything to do with the big man.
Young and Fellaini celebrate Manchester United's 2nd goal. Courtesy of J.Peters getty Images.
Mata showed his variety as he hustled and bustled around the pitch, mostly on the rights side, however his goal will come from a break on the left where the struggling Kompany had long vacated due to injury. The mercurial left footed wizard collected the ball, admittedly from a slightly offside position and nutmegged the City goalkeeper heartily for United’s third.
Smalling would impose the same amount of ridicule he once received at the Etihad, on Mangala, as he fed on the City defenders generous low line to head in United’s fourth and Young’s second assist. Aguero’s second goal took some blemish off proceedings but it came in the latter periods when United were down to 10 men due to complications with the Carrick.
The derby on Sunday was a sojourn of redemption for these embattled red warriors. In truth their reputations had been on the repair for quite a few games, slowly growing in stature and securing their place in the team as key players, but it was their showing at this derby that crystallized their rebirth. Once seen as doves, now devils. A city once painted blue by an influx of cash from Abu Dhabi – now once again, red.
Pelligrini watched hopelessly, sunken in his seat, as Van Gaal’s men took a nuclear warhead to his match day plans. The red faithful taunted him with the foreboding melody of “You will be sacked in the morning”.