Why Wayne Rooney Was Manchester United's Star Performer Against City

Terry CarrollContributor IIIDecember 9, 2012

At first sight, it might seem obvious that Wayne Rooney was man of the match for Manchester United against Manchester City today.

It's amazing how many times a centurion gets man of the match in a cricket Test match and how often a goalscorer in football. But then that's what we're all there to see.

How often does a defender get the award? Or the unsung hero who works his socks off in central midfield?

The truth is that Wayne Rooney does many of these things as well. But we'll return to that later.

It was such a pleasure to finish a match and not be moaning about a referee's controversial decision  deciding the match. Nevertheless, that could have been the outcome today, if City had held on for a draw rather than concede an injury-time goal.

There was some ironic significance that Sky Sports showed a banner with the number 93.20 on it in the City crowd just seconds before Robin Van Persie scored. It was in approximately the same stage of the match that City had snatched the Premier League title against QPR last May.

The Dutchman's goal saved the referee's assistant from blushing for the second week running, as replays showed that Ashley Young had a perfectly good goal chalked off that might well have killed City's resistance at 3-0.

Young had probably his best match for United this season. He has come in for unjustified criticism from some quarters of United fans despite the fact that he is feeling his way back after injury. 

Some fans expect footballers to be supermen, returning after a long layoff and instantly hitting top form. Before this match, Sir Alex explained that even the great Wayne Rooney needs a few matches to get his best form back, in this case after tonsillitis.

Rooney was critically instrumental in the first goal. David De Gea's throw to Patrice Evra was lobbed forward to Young, who back-headed it to Van Persie. The new Stretford End hero flicked it straight back into his colleagues path, and Young with three touches and a surging run passed exquisitely to Rooney. The Evertonian finished clinically, as he did for his second goal.

What supporters may miss is that Young, unlike Nani, gives unstinting defensive support to Evra, covering for him when he fails to make it back after his left-wing sorties.

Evra has shown better form too in the last couple of games, probably recognising the developing threat from Alexander Buttner or hearing the rumours about Leighton Baines. He was better today and should surely have had a penalty, as well as missing a headed chance.



Better Defence

United's defence was much better today. If they could be faulted at all, it would be for the occasional touch of the headless chicken and not having a man on the edge of the box, where both City's goals came from.

There was some suggestion that David De Gea was lucky to get the shout in goal today—thanks to Anders Lindegaard's domestic priorities—but surely he should have been picked anyhow after the Dane's indifferent displays recently.

This is now a key decision for Sir Alex. De Gea had an excellent display in goal. He looked like he wanted to keep the position indefinitely and responded to previous criticism about coming out for crosses. 

He didn't exactly dominate his box, but he was much braver and more decisive—and that must have helped to settle the defence. He couldn't be blamed for either of the goals. Surely, the Boss can see that his reflex brilliance outweighs Lindegaard's greater sureness on crosses? (Which was not evident last week, by the way.)

Rio Ferdinand and Johnny Evans were excellent until Evans had to go off early in the second half as a result of a first-half challenge by Mario Balotelli. They are still clearly United's second-best centre back pairing while Vidic is injured. 

After last season, when Evans rightly bore much of the blame for the 6-1 defeat by City, the Northern Irishman again showed why he is now rated one of the best central defenders in the Premier League.

His partner was immense today. He may have lost a yard of pace, but his mind is still sharp—and he is still a wily, old fox when it comes to shrugging off the challenge of pacy and sharp players like Aguero and Tevez with a much lower centre of gravity.

Young Rafael da Silva produced a performance of maturity and restraint to make up for his nightmare against Reading, when he was "hooked" after half an hour.

That was a chastising experience and could be the making of him. Certainly somebody has had a chat with him during the week. He sported a new, shorter and smarter hairstyle and did nothing wrong on the pitch. He marshalled his line well and produced a delightful cross for the second goal.

People often harp on about losing goals and matches. It should be acknowledged that today United deservedly notched a two-goal lead thanks to Rooney's clinical finishing, and City deservedly got back into the game.



Sometimes You Make Your Own Luck

For Mancini to say United were lucky to win was ironic. The best performance against City at home this calendar year was the Dortmund match, where, despite City having most of the possession, more than 60 percent of the game was played in their half of the pitch.

Maybe Sir Alex and Rene Meulensteen had noted this fact. Certainly, it is true that they have tried to get United playing a higher line this year. That doesn't work when Paul Scholes or Ryan Giggs start for the team. But it did today with Tom Cleverley alongside Michael Carrick.

Where many a neutral would have expected City's midfield—and especially Yaya Toure—to overrun United's pairing, the latter were so effective that they played higher and higher up the pitch.

Cleverley was not man of the match, but hopefully the penny has dropped for Sir Alex that his best midfield pairing is either Carrick and Anderson or Carrick and Fletcher.

Carrick was at his very best today. He won't make the headlines, but he did everything his manager could have expected and more. No less than seven interceptions, three winning tackles and two fouls that could have brought a booking were testament to his determination.

His great quality is his calmness. He and Cleverley took it in turns to mark and tackle Toure and refused to be bullied by the giant Ivorian. The younger Tom buzzed around all over the pitch, was close to Carrick when he needed to be, helped out Evra when the latter was stretched and was still upfield linking attack when needed.

Both had unspectacular performances, but unlike the Tottenham match, United held the line in midfield.

Valencia may have been a surprise inclusion, like Cleverley, but he too was back close to his best. City may know all about him, but this was also one of the Ecuadorian's best matches for a while. He was always dangerous, put over several crosses, occupied Clichy and linked well with Rafael down the right flank, both in attack and defence.



A Day for Heroes

It was a day when every United player could take pride in their performance, unlike the dreadful collapse against City at Old Trafford last year. Many of the personnel were the same.

One man was new to Manchester derbies and once again he made a critical difference. Michael Owen will never forget scoring the 94th-minute winner in the stunning 4-3 defeat of City a couple of years ago. This time it was another world-class finisher who scored a very different goal to decide the contest.

It will be a very long time before Robin Van Persie forgets this day of days—and maybe before he forgets this season. He has come to Old Trafford to win the trophies that eluded him in seven long years at Arsenal. If United win the EPL this year, he will undoubtedly be the key difference.

Some people may wonder where he was for most of the match. The truth is that City had clearly singled him out as the United danger man, and he was closely marked and followed for the whole match. But you can't stop him scoring from a free kick if he gets it right.

Former Arsenal colleague, Samir Nasri, will also remember this match for a long time, thanks to his comical defending in the wall and his Pythonesque raised leg that deflected the ball into the net. His only salvation is that he wasn't the biggest clown on the pitch.

That honour fell to Mario Balotelli, who, frankly, is a disgrace. You have to feel some sympathy for City supporters when one of their players fails to turn up and looks like he needs a taxi to follow all the way to the goal.

But enough of that, because this was a day when a goalscorer was going to win man of the match if either side prevailed.

Van Persie put in a Rooney-like display, constantly running to try and create space and shake off at least two markers. His was a critical flick during the build-up for the first goal, but he thoroughly deserved the third goal for his selfless display.

Like Eric Cantona before him, RVP has become something of a talisman for United, and he also will never be forgotten after his exquisite free kick was merely slightly deflected to send United supporters into dreamland.



Man of the Match Wayne Rooney

Sir Alex had much to say about Wayne Rooney last week, as some people started to speculate that he had lost his magic touch. Like great wines, Rooney will get even better with age. There is no doubt he will join Best, Law and Charlton as one of the all-time greats.

In truth, he wasn't perfect, but some of his misplaced passes can be excused because he was taking a justified risk. 

When Cristiano Ronaldo was at United, Sir Alex eventually realised that he was at his best and most dangerous when he was given a free role. Lionel Messi is given the same freedom at Barcelona. Some players have to be indulged to get the very best out of them. What you get is the X-factor.

Indulging Wayne Rooney is hardly ever a risk. The difference between him and his Portuguese mate is that he tirelessly puts in a shift all over the pitch for the team.

Non-football people and indeed non-United people consistently moan about him being a thug or ugly or a terrible player. What do they know?

Rooney was booked once all-season last year, and today he got his second booking of this term. He deserved it, but he got it by desperately trying to stop City from playing. Both tackles were mistimed, but they were way better than the "Ginger Prince".

You would have to be at the match to see how much of a stint Rooney put in today. He was at the heart of defence for set-pieces and at the heart of every counterattack. He just happened to score a couple of clinical goals along the way.

Whether he was stung by the implied criticism last week, we shall never know, but it doesn't matter, because Wayne is his own biggest critic.

Today, he can be rightly delighted. Given licence to roam, he was also clearly told to play higher up the pitch. Until the last ten minutes or so, United played 4-4-2, and it showed in the result.

Van Persie is at his best up top or on the shoulder of the last defender. Wayne is at his coming late into the penalty area or onto the ball. That was also something Cristiano was good at.

Wayne was helping in defence when needed: breaking with the attack when the ball was cleared and for most of the match managed to play central attacking midfield. That is where many supporters see him in the future.

He may not have had his best season to date. He was outrageously unfit at the start and since then has had to learn a new partnership with a man who has become an instant hero.

But today Wayne was the hero. Four goals in two Premier League games, 151 in the same league and double figures already in Manchester derbies. 

He's already a hero, and he's well on the way to being a legend. Today was the icing on the cake. Now that he's hitting top form, surely even City can't keep United from grabbing back their birthright with a 20th title at the end of the season?


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