There was a feeling around the Manchester derby last season that, in many ways, was relatively new for those who follow City.
United had it when they began to dominate English football in the 1990s, the knowledge that they effectively just had to turn up and play properly to beat City.
The roles were reversed 12 months ago, however, and never at any stage did anything other than two Blue victories seem likely. So it proved: 2-0 at Old Trafford with 68 per cent possession, 4-1 at the Etihad Stadium with 70 per cent possession.
Manchester City strolled past Manchester United both home and away last season
Over the three hours of action, United were only level for 18 minutes — the gulf between the teams was colossal. City were brilliant, United’s prime task was keeping the score down.
If I’m honest, I can’t say I enjoyed it. The Manchester derby should never be a formality, it should be the hardest six points in the calendar for both teams and, if you are on the right side of the final score, the buzz should stay with you for weeks.
What I’m delighted to say ahead of this latest showdown is that I don’t know which side will be celebrating on Sunday — and, for that, we have to acknowledge the impact Erik ten Hag has had in reviving the Red Devils.
It feels like United are fresh again and, certainly before the international break, the players who needed to step up — Bruno Fernandes, Christian Eriksen, Marcus Rashford, Lisandro Martinez, Jadon Sancho — all did so. The confidence is returning and that makes them dangerous.
But United have looked like a new team in recent games under Erik ten Hag
I can’t sit here and say I want to see Manchester United doing well but last season it reached the stage where you were watching events across town with your hands over your eyes, wondering where the fall they were experiencing was going to leave them.
Rock bottom, arguably, arrived at Brentford in the second game of the current campaign. I’m sure plenty had Ten Hag written off that night and I suspect there would have even been some wondering about him within the dressing room. It makes what happened the following day even more significant.
With United having run eight miles fewer than Brentford, Ten Hag decided that the squad would make up the distance the following day. It was a big call to make and could have led to difficulties for him going forward. Crucially, Ten Hag said he would do the run also.
Ten Hag is not the first manager to do this. I saw Stuart Pearce do something similar, early in 2007.
Stuart Pearce put City players through their paces following a difficult run of form in 2007
That Manchester City side I played in had experienced a terrible run at home and we had gone two months without scoring in front of our fans. Stuart was furious about how we had been playing and one day he got us together at our training ground in Carrington. He spelled out a few home truths. ‘I’m over 40,’ he said. ‘I’ve got bad knees. I want you to run through brick walls for me, so I’m going to run through the pain barrier for you.’
That is exactly what he did. He made us go on a long, demanding run but he ran every step of the way alongside us. It was a gesture to show that we were all in it together and there was a lift at the end of March, as we beat Middlesbrough and Newcastle. Such actions go a long way.
I’m sure, privately, that Ten Hag will have felt at times that taking United back to the positions they want to be is bigger and harder than he first imagined but, to give credit where it is due, he quickly figured what works for this team at this stage of the rebuild.
Tyrell Malacia has proved to be a shrewd addition to the United squad by Ten Hag
He has made some good signings — I like Tyrell Malacia, who arrived from Feyenoord, a lot, while Eriksen has been quality — and four consecutive Premier League wins was the perfect response to those opening defeats.
There will come a stage when they have to dominate opponents with the ball (and that is not going to happen on Sunday) but they are playing to their strengths and you can see what Ten Hag is trying to do, which is a sign they are being well coached.
United know how to hit teams on the counter, quickly and clinically, and that makes them very dangerous opponents for City. It also means they make the five-mile trip to the Etihad knowing they have the potential to win — and that is exactly what a derby should be about.
HAALAND’S UNBELIEVABLE START
Mentioning the story about Stuart Pearce and running made me think about that 2006-07 season.
For the record, after beating Everton 2-1 on January 1 of that campaign, we did not score another goal at the Etihad in the Premier League for the rest of the season — eight blank games.
Erling Haaland’s incredible start to life in Manchester has surpassed everyone’s expectations
What a contrast now with Erling Haaland! Fifteen goals in 12 matches for club and country so far is ridiculous. I expected his tally at this stage to be eight or nine so I actually can’t believe what I’m seeing.
He is making things look so easy. It was always going to be the case that he would thrive — how could he not while getting passes from Kevin De Bruyne? — but what has struck me is the power and manner he runs away from defenders.
I knew when he brushed past West Ham’s Ben Johnson that he was going to be sensational. People tried to make a battle between Haaland and Darwin Nunez but I don’t think that was ever realistic. Nunez — who is much better than he has shown so far, believe me — needs time at Liverpool but Haaland is going places quicker than any of us could have imagined.
MIRACLE MAN ERIKSEN WAS RIGHT TO MAKE UNITED MOVE
Plenty of people thought it was a bold move by Christian Eriksen to leave Brentford, after they had taken a chance on him.
I don’t see it that way.
He was man of the match every time I watched him for Brentford and he showed commitment to them in helping keep them up.
Christian Eriksen’s move to Old Trafford is turning out brilliantly for the Danish international
Joining United showed that they are still a draw and, what is more, he is working for a manager who has a lot of faith in him. I know the same was true at Brentford with Thomas Frank but Eriksen is a player who needs to be playing in the biggest games, such as Sunday’s derby.
He was always quality with Tottenham and, having shown his fitness and wellbeing, there is no reason why he will not be quality for United. It was a justified move and I’m delighted it is turning out so well. We all should be.
After what happened at Euro 2020, it is a miracle, really.
CITY’S ONE WORRY
Manchester City’s form has been ominous but one area that is still giving cause for concern is the potential for them to allow teams to take the lead.
This United team have the ability to shock Pep Guardiola by taking an early lead
Games against Newcastle, Crystal Palace and Borussia Dortmund, remember, all had the potential to turn out very differently.
City look capable of scoring at will but, sooner or later, a game is going to come around when they are going to struggle and they will get caught out if they keep conceding the odd sloppy goal.
They face a team on Sunday who will know exactly how to capitalise and frustrate in those circumstances.