It wasn’t the outcome any of the 5,500 travelling fans wanted, but in the cold light of day, it was probably the one which Derby County needed. Nobody in their right mind could complain about the result, which was wholly justified on the balance of play. But it didn’t stop Romelu Lukaku’s injury-time goal on the counter leaving me feel like I’d been kicked in the gut.
Derby hung on in there valiantly, surfing a big wave of fortune along the way and were less than ten minutes from forcing a replay, only to be toppled by a moment of sheer brilliance from Jesse Lingard. The Rams didn’t have enough quality to find a way back, or to ever seriously test Sergio Romero, but until Lingard’s absolute exocet of a strike past the excellent Scott Carson, it was starting to seem as if the mighty United had run out of ideas.
José Mourinho didn’t mess around with his team selection. There were no minutes for youngsters and Paul Pogba was not rested. When the first half ended goalless, Lukaku was summoned in place of the fitful Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Anthony Martial came next and when that didn’t work, the brick-subtle Belgian Marouane Fellaini was brought on. United were obliged to haul out their heaviest offensive artillery. But Gary Rowett had, to my dismay, rested two of his most important players in Curtis Davies and Matej Vydra.
Given that Mourinho was never likely to take this game lightly, that felt like a decision which was asking for trouble. In hindsight, I wonder if Rowett wonders what might have been had the Czech been on hand to take advantage of one of several promising counter attacks in the first half.
I think back to previous encounters with United, when Rooney at his peak or Cristiano Ronaldo brought a genuine fear factor. Centre forward-wise, in the absence of Zlatan Ibrahimović, they have nobody with the same totemic presence. This is by no means a vintage United side and the FA Cup looks like their only real chance of silverware this season.
Nevertheless, they are still United and Derby spent the first 20 minutes largely boxed in, peering suspiciously at the twinkling feet of Pogba and Rashford, waiting passively for something to happen. They were fortunate that it didn’t. But United were trying to pass through the eye of a needle, using the technical front four of Lingard, Mkhitaryan, Marcus Rashford and Juan Mata to unlock a much-changed Rams rearguard, which largely stood up to a really challenging examination. Nevertheless, Rashford was released into the box with only Carson to beat and somehow fired over the bar, before heading a back-post cross against the upright.
For all of their obvious quality, United looked sloppy at times in the first half and a speedy Derby front four – Sam Winnall, Tom Lawrence, Andi Weimann, Johnny Russell – had clearly been selected with harrying and counter-attacking in mind. With George Thorne and Tom Huddlestone sitting deep to screen the back four – to anyone who doubted whether they can play together, the answer is, they can – Derby repeatedly broke up play and scampered at the Reds – they had plenty of these situations and with a bit more quality in the crucial moments, could easily have nicked the first goal. Derby were more in the first half than Mourinho will have liked, but frustratingly, they just couldn’t take advantage of United’s mistakes.
In the second half, the United pressure felt more sporadic, the introduction of Lukaku making their approach play less intricate around Derby’s box, Pogba becoming more and more frustrated with himself. Rashford leathered a fearsome drive across Carson and against the inside of the post – it was one of those days for the excellent young Manchester lad. But Derby, thanks to the nerveless conducting skills of Thorne and Huddlestone, continued to pick up the ball in decent positions and doggedly remained in the game, until finally being defeated by a moment of individual brilliance worthy of winning any match.
Thorne’s calm quality on the ball was plain to see throughout and there is no obvious reason not to extend his contract now, unless the player actively wants to go elsewhere. Rowett said beforehand that he wanted to see which players could cope and the two midfielders certainly showed that, with the ball at feet, they are Premier League standard.
However, United were, as you would expect, a league apart, boasting strength, pace and technique that Derby simply do not have. Physicality is as vital as skill in the Premier League and to compete strongly if they do attain that level, the Rams will certainly need to add athleticism throughout the team.
For Rowett, a 2-0 defeat was almost the perfect result. Not bad enough to look embarrassing – heads held high and all that – but now there are no more cup games to worry about for the rest of the season. Winning would have been amazing, but the reward would probably have been a fourth round trip to Burnley or somewhere, which the manager is doubtless privately delighted to have avoided. And there were positives to take out of this encounter.
Firstly and most prosaically, the result was “respectable”. Secondly, there is no replay. The club’s finance director would have loved the major windfall that United would have brought and my Red pal was just starting to warm to the idea of a night out in Derby… But we’ll just have to hope that it happens in the league next year. From a dispassionate standpoint, an additional big fixture, while highly lucrative and exciting for the supporters, would have been a distraction from the real task at hand, which is attaining promotion.
The defenders who came into the team, Alex Pearce, Marcus Olsson and Andre Wisdom, performed competently – in fact, there’s a strong case to make that the two ‘reserve’ full backs were actually more suited to this game than Craig Forsyth and Chris Baird. I still feel that leaving out Curtis Davies sent out the wrong signal, but Rowett is paid to make these clear-eyed calculations, leaving the emotional responses to the fans. If Derby beat Birmingham City next Saturday, then Rowett was right, simple as.
Mourinho’s comments about the club being a Premier League outfit in waiting were gracious, but then again, he’s a good winner – had Derby had the audacity to get a result, he would not have been so accommodating, I’m sure. Plus, it was important for him to talk up the opponents, given that his phenomenally expensive side didn’t steamroller the Rams to the extent that the relative budgets involved would suggest that they should. They have stuttered and struggled in recent weeks and Mourinho must have been mightily relieved when Jesse produced his moment of sheer magic.
The Old Trafford experience was a useful marker for Derby, which currently feels like a club on the up – and with every chance of going up. Over a few post-match pints in Port Street Beer House, my United pal asked me how I would spend the TV money on improving our team if we do go up this summer… So that will be the subject of my next post.