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Opinion Piece

Derby day shows United’s new direction

Manchester-United-v-Manchester-City (1)Sergio Aguero slots the ball past David De Gea, adding to his seventh minute opener and quashing Manchester United’s slender hopes of leaving the 169th Manchester derby with a point.

As City fans celebrate a fourth consecutive win at Old Trafford, David Moyes slumps back in the dug-out, defiance caving in under the realisation that his two-season spell is about to come to an end.

Thankfully, that will always remain nothing more than a potential nightmare.

Moyes’ shortcomings have been replaced by Louis Van Gaal’s tactical acumen and, 12 months on from aspiring to be like City, United can finally look down on their neighbours again.

Whether they’ll finish ahead of City this season remains to be seen – particularly as the last six games include trips to Stamford Bridge and Goodison Park as well as Arsenal’s visit to Old Trafford – but Sunday’s derby painted a promising picture for the red half of Manchester.

The shift in power City have incessantly awaited over the last couple of seasons looks to have already petered out.

Reeling from their worst campaign in two decades, United found themselves nine points behind their neighbours in January and are now four points ahead of the soon-to-be-deposed champions.

It is a scenario that even the more optimistic of reds would have found scarcely believable when Van Gaal arrived at Old Trafford in July and even less so a couple of months ago, when the engine of United’s expensively assembled machine continued to splutter.

However, over the last four games, United have turned a corner.

The turgid football has been replaced by a slick, precise and purposeful approach.

Gone are the constant sideways passes and the machiavellian changes of formation, United now begin to resemble a well-oiled machine.

While Van Gaal’s philosophy seemed to be lost in translation up until February, it has now been almost completely assimilated by his players.

Even more importantly, the Dutchman seems to have moved towards United’s philosophy as much as United have moved towards his. They no longer look to retain the ball for the sake of it, they move it around with crisp, sharp passes, the kind of football fans had increasingly grown to consider an exception rather than the rule.

It is telling of United’s progress this season that three of their most improved players are deployed in midfield, an area by which teams’ philosophies live and die.

Juan Mata has gone from expensive panic buy to show the quality that won him the player of the season award in both of his seasons at Stamford Bridge, while Marouane Fellaini has earned himself a spot in a team many thought he would not even play for once Van Gaal was appointed.

Ashley Young, so often the pantomime villain over the last two seasons, has shown the kind of form capable of keeping the club’s record signing on the bench.

For different reasons, the trio’s struggles last season epitomised Moyes’ wretched tenure but, not by coincidence, they have flourished under Van Gaal.

That, in turn, has allowed the Dutchman to get the best out of Michael Carrick who, finally equipped with an excellent supporting cast in midfield, has shone even brighter than he had done under Sir Alex Ferguson.

Of course, by Van Gaal’s own admission United are far from being the finished article, for defensive lapses remain an all too common occurrence and Angel Di Maria is a £60m conundrum that will need to be addressed sooner rather than later.

And yet, it is impossible not consider United a team on an upward trajectory and not only because of their six win on the trot.

Against City, United played with the sense of adventure and exhilaration that had been missing for too long. It wasn’t quite football taught by Matt Busby, but it was much better of what we witnessed last season and even during Fergie’s final seasons, when attacking football was often sacrificed to the altar of results.

Earlier this season, Van Gaal had warned time was needed before the results of his work could begin to show, before hailing the fans’ patience after the final whistle on Sunday.

More patience is likely to be required but, after spending 18 months looking in complete darkness, the light at the end of the tunnel looms large.