Miguel Delaney: ' Why pride and emotion can trump logic in season-defining Manchester derby'
The Manchester United dressing room has not been a happy place over the last few weeks but, over the last few days, it’s also been a badly hurt place.
The players have been deeply stung by the criticism and the basic sense of humiliation. They have a point to prove and, for one-off games at least, there’s little in football as powerful as wounded pride.
Related to this, there’s little in football as essential to the sport as the pride of fans. This hangs so heavily over this most consequential of Manchester derbies, as the end of the season gets closer, and the stakes of every individual step get higher.
It could also make for an evening that greatly plays on fans’ minds, just as the pressure plays on the players.
For Manchester City at least, it is somewhat straightforward. If they beat their greatest rivals at their own ground, the champions will remain on course with three games to go. If they drop points, their greatest rivals will have greatly - and potentially fatally - cost them, in a title race against a Liverpool side who City have developed a real animosity with.
That, however, is also where it starts to get more complicated. United remain the club who City still have the biggest complex about, but there will be many at Old Trafford who would accept defeat on Wednesday if it denied Liverpool that long-awaited 19th title. As James Milner meanwhile admitted, Liverpool face the rare dilemma of desperately wanting United to get a result, but even their own local rivals have a place in this.
Everton’s best performance of the season could yet lead to their worst nightmare if it stings United into the result against City that eventually gives Liverpool victory in the title race.
Alternatively, Everton’s 0-0 draw with Liverpool could remain the last time either of the leaders dropped points, and the last time the initiative in the title race changed.
As we say, mindbending, but only because the form of the top two has been so literally straightforward.
The unprecedented nature of this run-in, where that March result at Goodison Park represents the only slip in exactly two months, is one big reason why we will be able to trace any eventual triumph back to a huge juncture moment.
It has just been so historically good, and relentless.
It is also one reason why it’s difficult to look beyond a comfortable City win on Wednesday, even at this most uncomfortable stage of the season.
Against their run of 10 consecutive Premier League wins, United have lost six of their last eight in all competitions as a consequence of a multitude of problems. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has already expressed concern about a squad that doesn’t look fit, with so many players now looking to their futures, and doubt just spreading right around the team about almost everything. Such problems are all the more pronounced when compared to City’s singular focus.
All United really have to rely on is that sense of pride. But… might that actually be enough, in one of these curious games that means so much? It might really be something for Solskjaer to play on.
If the Norwegian’s nostalgic references to United’s best days are by now far past their sell-by date, it might actually be worth him drawing on one of their worst days - and one of the few in the last 28 years to genuinely match the misery of what is happening now. There is genuine precedent there, and a concrete example to follow.
That was in November 2005, and perhaps the worst period of Sir Alex Ferguson’s tenure since his 1990 FA Cup win. A dreadful start to the season had resulted in a ruinous 4-1 defeat at Middlesbrough, and Roy Keane’s infamous MUTV rant that cost him his place at the club.
“I’ve been expecting something like this to happen,” the Irishman said, in words that could be just as applicable to the last week. “These guys think the day they got their new contracts was the best day of their careers. They think they have made it, but they haven’t.”
The controversy even led to a not completely dissimilar supporter complex over results, as some openly backed Keane, and others called for Ferguson to finally go. That prospect was even discussed at boardroom level - if just briefly - because there seemed just no way out. Ferguson was genuinely surprised by the away support’s atmosphere in a 1-0 Champions League defeat at Lille and the side just looked in disarray.
Then there were the equally relevant words of Ruud van Nistelrooy. “This must be the most difficult time I have known at the club,” the Dutch striker said. “We’re not playing well. We have difficulty keeping the ball. It’s not fluent. We don’t play in the opponents’ half, with crosses coming in, second balls won. We’re not applying pressure on our opponents. “Our confidence is down… I don’t know what’s going on.
“But the question is, how are we going to do it? We have to look at everything: the squad, individuals, everything.”
And up next on the fixture list? Champions Chelsea, who were at that point 386 days and 40 games unbeaten in the Premier League under Jose Mourinho. What happened next?
Ferguson played on that stung pride, most of all his own. He whipped the side into a frenetic 1-0 win. Solskjaer was still in the squad at the time, and knows exactly what Ferguson did, and what he said. That may be far more relevant to now than the many more general references to his mentor’s effect. That may yet prove decisive in the title race. The United players are raring to go.
The wonder then will be how City respond. Their own mindset has changed in the last few days, but for the better. While the side did look very visibly affected by the emotional extremes of the Champions League defeat to Tottenham Hotspur, the fact they got through it with a 1-0 win is seen as key. It has brought a release. They themselves are ready. They’re also ready for a sharp United start, as Pep Guardiola admitted in his pre-match preview.
This is what happens with many sides who have been struggling for form, and has happened all the more with United because of how Solskjaer has attempted to adapt to their fitness and better sides.
“I know in the beginning how strong they’ll be in terms of intensity and we’ll have to handle it,” Guardiola said.
The big question might be how they handle going behind. Will that see pressure finally tell? That’s what these games can do. We do still know what City can do.
If the game goes according to all logic, then - no matter who takes the lead - they should just be assured in their play as that will inevitably expose the many flaws in this United. Solskjaer just has to upend that logic. He has to for once play on emotion.
It could yet spark all manner of emotion, in all directions, in this title race. This is what it could come down to. This game really is what the league might come down to. Old Trafford on 24 April 2019 could be the place. Much depends on the attitudes of the dressing rooms within it.
Independent News Service