With Antonio Valencia back, Sir Alex Ferguson reverted to the counterattacking style that brought victory against Chelsea
In an age where squad rotation is widespread, it is entirely normal for a title-challenging manager to chop and change between matches, but rarely have Sir Alex Ferguson's selection decisions caused such consternation among Manchester United fans. Too often this season, United have conceded the first goal and been forced to win the match from the bench – here, Ferguson needed to get his starting lineup right.
His selection made sense – he turned to the XI he used at Chelsea in October, a decision made possible by Antonio Valencia's surprise recovery from injury. That was a sign he wanted to replicate the display at Stamford Bridge, which was sealed by a fortunate goal, but featured some fantastic counterattacking throughout the match, with an obvious pattern. Chelsea were flooding the centre of the pitch under Roberto Di Matteo, so United broke quickly down the flanks, particularly the right.
Manchester City offer a similar challenge – Samir Nasri and David Silva start wide but effectively become supplementary central midfielders – so a similar approach was logical. United's opening two goals were pure counterattacking strikes; first following brilliant one-touch play from Ashley Young and Robin van Persie, then the combination of Valencia and Rafael da Silva resulted in a low cut-back for Wayne Rooney. United's passes saw 57% go down the right compared with only 25% down the left.
Rooney's second was highly reminiscent of Van Persie's goal at Stamford Bridge, and the entire game followed a similar pattern – two breakaway goals in the first half, a period of sloppiness allowing the opposition to make it 2-2, before a fortunate late winner.
United's opener was scored on the counterattack and also furthered their ability to play that style of football. In the first 15 minutes City were playing excellently, and United struggled when their defence was high up the pitch; Sergio Agüero and Mario Balotelli might not be City's most effective forward line, but it is certainly their paciest, and neither Jonny Evans nor Rio Ferdinand looked comfortable when asked to turn and sprint. Evans was dismissed in City's 6-1 win last season when Balotelli sneaked in behind him, and Agüero caused Ferdinand problems with his pace in the early stages here. The natural response would be for United to defend deeper, of course, but that would have been dangerous at 0-0, risking a repeat of their incredibly sedentary performance in this fixture last year.
Instead, with an early lead, Ferguson's side were able to encourage pressure and play reactively. Rooney's second justified that strategy, and while United did concede their two-goal advantage again, they were certainly more comfortable when defending closer to their penalty box – City's through-balls were less of a problem, and Roberto Mancini's side only scored through two very scrappy goals.
United recorded their lowest pass completion rate and their lowest share of possession this season but this was a natural consequence of playing on the break. This approach will not be possible in the majority of Premier League games, but Ferguson appears to have found his "big game" strategy and, with the exception of Nemanja Vidic's imminent return, he has found the right combination of players too.
West Brom struggled to adjust after losing central midfielder Claudio Yacob to a hamstring injury ahead of their trip to the Emirates on Saturday. His partnership with Youssouf Mulumbu has been vital in West Brom's excellent start to the season, and although Steve Clarke was rightly angry about the two penalty decisions in Arsenal's 2-0 victory, he admitted his side didn't perform well.
Clarke was forced to move James Morrison into a deep-lying role, which harmed West Brom in two separate positions. Morrison and Mulumbu lacked discipline and structure in front of the defence, but more importantly Morrison's creativity was missed higher up the pitch, with Zoltan Gera now more comfortable in a wide position.
West Brom lack alternatives in the centre of midfield following the summer departures of back-ups Paul Scharner, Keith Andrews and Somen Tchoyi, and Clarke will surely look to strengthen that area of the pitch in January.
For all the talk of Liverpool's lack of forwards in Luis Suárez's absence, and Jonjo Shelvey's anticipated false nine role in the 3-2 win at Upton Park on Sunday, in reality Shelvey wasn't a false nine at all – simply a midfielder played upfront.
The false nine is supposed to play significantly deeper than a natural centre forward, providing another passing option and tempting the opposition centre-backs higher up the pitch, in the absence of a traditional striker to mark. But while Shelvey's passing was decent, he was essentially playing as a striker – battling with centre-backs and trying to get on the end of crosses. Shelvey clearly isn't a natural striker, but nor was he a false nine.