As Manchester United’s chief executive Ed Woodward walked away from the dressing room into the freezing Moscow cold after United had drawn 1-1 with CSKA on Wednesday, he smiled and said: “No defeat and no injuries.”
With Sunday’s Manchester derby in mind at Old Trafford, that view made sense.
Manager Louis van Gaal was satisfied with the draw from another mediocre United performance, albeit one which improved as the game went on. The team was unscathed, though Ander Herrera did take a kick in the stomach late on.
The Spaniard was starting his second consecutive game – which he deserved after a Man of the Match performance at Everton last Saturday. Better than that he, was a permanent influence in United’s forward play, finding space and being hard for opponents to pick up.
The former Zaragoza and Athletic Bilbao player wasn’t as effective in Moscow – where United didn’t play as well- though he did start the move that led to Martial’s goal. His team are still finding their feet away in Europe where they’ve won only one of their last nine games, but Herrera has many fans on the terraces and within the club.
United legend Paddy Crerand, a man who made a career from being an exceptional passer, told me after the draw in Moscow:
He’s a good passer of the ball who keeps the game at a good tempo. When he’s on his game United play at a good tempo. Ander’s quick at everything he does. And when United play quick they’re a different team all together, they’re a far better side.
It’s not the first time that United have been accused of being obsessed by possession above penetration. It has been a hallmark of many of Van Gaal’s matches in charge, but there’s been a gradual improvement.
The team are slightly, less cautious, they’re scoring more goals (the three at Everton was the fifth time they’d scored three in eight games), though there are serious worries about the lack-lustre form of Wayne Rooney (above) and the lack of spark shown by Memphis Depay. The same can’t be said of another summer signing, Anthony Martial.
He’s quick and has great skill,” Crerand said of the 19-year-old Frenchman. He’s a defender’s nightmare because he always wants to take them on.
Given the poor form of Rooney, who United will drop if his performances don’t improve, there’s a case for starting Martial as the main forward with Herrera behind him, though Rooney has done well in Manchester derbies.
Herrera also excelled in the 4-2 win last April, which came during the most impressive run of Van Gaal’s reign so far. Just as discontent was starting to bubble at United’s underwhelming form after they’d been knocked out of the FA Cup at home to Arsenal in March, just as it looked like they wouldn’t make the top four, the Reds came good. Very good.
Not only did they beat Spurs, Liverpool, Villa and City, they did it playing the type of attacking football historically associated with United at their best.
Herrera, who had been used sparingly over the winter, started all four of those games. He scored two against Villa and set up Mata’s first with a brilliant assist at Anfield. He was one of the best players on the pitch in the derby as City were hit for four in a surprise win, especially as United had been so poor against their neighbours in recent years.
United are far from a one-man Herrera team, but he started only half the league games last season and has started only a third of the nine game so far this.
Only Van Gaal knows at this stage whether Herrera will play. He’s not one of the certainties like Chris Smalling and David de Gea, who’ve both been brilliant this season.
Smalling scored United’s fourth in the March victory over City, yet he was sent off in the away derby for a mindless lunge on James Milner, seconds after picking up a yellow card. He claims he’s learned from that.
Premier League and Champions League winner David May played at the heart of the United defence for years and has been impressed by what he’s seen from Smalling.
He’s established himself as United’s number one centre-half. He’s become a leader. He’s very quick, brings the ball out well and very rarely gets done by an opponent. I thought he finished last season well and any doubts I had about him being a bit timid went. He’s strong, brave, reads the game intelligently and brings balance. I really think Louis van Gaal is getting the best out of him.
United will leapfrog City at the top if they win on Sunday but which team is going to turn up?
The one who were taken apart by the in-form Arsenal side and lost 3-0 or the one who took Everton apart at Goodison and beat them 3-0?
But with 23 goals in the last six encounters between these sides and City leading 4-2 on aggregate on match wins a 1-0 win for United with Martial hitting the net will do the Stretford End (30/1) very nicely before Tuesday week’s return with CSKA Moscow.