Manchester United must continue to use the Derby draw as a platform for better form.
Maybe it was the absence of fans in the stands. Maybe it was the pressure both managers were under. Maybe it was fatigue.
Whatever it was, the first Manchester derby of the 2020-21 season was a largely lifeless affair, with Manchester City and Manchester United seemingly happy to settle for a goalless outcome and a point apiece.
For some, this was a missed opportunity, particularly for United who could have pushed themselves closer to the Premier League’s top four with victory. The Champions League defeat to RB Leipzig just a few days beforehand had been a damaging one and so this was a chance for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his players to prove they are still making progress. City were there for the taking.
Solskjaer, however, saw something different.
“In my time against Manchester City that’s the best performance we have had,” he insisted despite United doing the league double over City last season. “Not the best result but the best performance. It’s a mental challenge when that happens to you [going out of Champions League]. The mental energy you spend trying to recover from Tuesday is huge. I’m happy with a clean sheet – in games like this when you have margins you can win or lose, so it is a fair result.”
At the time, Solskjaer’s comments jarred. A club as big as Manchester United, with their history, should never be happy with a draw at home to one of their rivals. But in hindsight, the Norwegian’s remarks held some merit. This has become clear in the way the Red Devils have played since there derby.
Manchester United hadn’t kept a clean sheet in a game since the 1-0 win over West Brom on November 21. Five matches had passed since then with the Old Trafford outfit conceding goals against Istanbul Basaksehir, Southampton, Paris Saint-Germain, West Ham and RB Leipzig.
While United’s attack is widely seen as one of the most potent in the Premier League, their defence has been a weakness this season. David de Gea, Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka have all faced questions over their form as their team has struggled to keep things tight at the back. It has undermined a number of performances.
This is why the goalless draw in the Manchester derby proved to be a more positive result for Solskjaer and his players than was immediately obvious. It proved United could be organised and difficult to play through against the best attacking opposition, as City are. It proved they have the capacity for improvement in that area.
United are following a precedent set by Chelsea earlier in the season.Frank Lampard’s side faced similar questions over their defence in the early phase of the season. However, a 0-0 draw at Old Trafford, coming just days after a 0-0 draw against Sevilla in the Champions League, gave the Blues a platform to build on. They have been a more balanced side since then, emerging as potential Premier League title challengers.
In this unusual season played in unique circumstances, there were always likely to be inconsistencies. Indeed, Liverpool have been beaten 7-2 by Aston Villa. Manchester City lost 5-2 at home to Leicester City while Tottenham Hotspur, who have risen to the top of the Premier League table, suffered a 1-0 home defeat to Everton on the opening day of the season.
Manchester United have been more inconsistent than most, winning two in seven at home and six from seven on the road. Solskjaer’s side could emerge as title challengers if they can plug a few holes in their squad – the holes that were exposed in the 2-2 draw against Leicester City. This current run of form, which started with the 0-0 draw against City, has led some to suggest United could finish top of the pile.
On the day, and in isolation, the 0-0 draw against Manchester City was an underwhelming outcome, but United could still use it to their benefit. Solskjaer must use it in the same way Lampard used a 0-0 draw at Old Trafford to push his Chelsea team forward. If Manchester United are to emerge as genuine title challengers, they might look back at derby disappointment in a different way.