The most expensively assembled squads in the history of this, or any other, football fixture was, to use a euphemism, one for the purists.
Yes, the quality of defending could be admired for the vast majority of the game but, it is safe to assume, the new television deal which places a valuation of £11 million on each and every Premier League fixture was not signed with the intention of showcasing clearing headers and full-backs marshalling wingers out of play. Occasionally, only occasionally, Anthony Martial threatened to elevate proceedings and his superb 84th-minute ball allowed substitute Jesse Lingard to sprint ahead of City’s back line and produce an audacious lob which struck the crossbar.
The crowd was still stirring into life from that attempt, woken from their slumber, when an Ander Herrera free-kick was headed across the area by Marouane Fellaini and Chris Smalling’s low shot was well saved by Joe Hart at the foot of his post.
But, with neither goalkeeper required to touch the ball in anger, what preceded was a complete anti-climax after the pre-match build-up and the discussion of a derby date which could have a major impact on the Premier League title race.
Indeed, the most noteworthy moment of the preceding 85 minutes featured Wayne Rooney receiving treatment, and stapled stitches, on the sideline with a painful-looking cut following an accidental clash of heads with the recalled City captain Vincent Kompany.
That aside, while there was plenty of technique worth admiring from players on both sides, there was too much caution, little willingness to commit the extra man or go for the jugular when the safe option involved holding onto the ball and passing in squares.
Martial, United’s forward playing wide on the left-wing again behind the lone striker Rooney, was a rare exception, his desire to take on full-back Bacary Sagna obvious and logical given his superiority in that duel.
It was also no coincidence that City’s two first-half bookings — Fernandinho and Kompany — were both handed out following fouls on the French teenager.
But one moment midway through the period, when he spun away from Kompany and slalomed his way past Nicolas Otamendi, summed up the growing frustration for Martial and supporters alike as the move ended with Juan Mata losing control and possession in the City area.
City, at least, looked that degree more dangerous on the counter attack, the slick early passing and movement of Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling, in particular, promising although, without the injured David Silva and Sergio Aguero, it was a far less menacing version of their usual modus operandi.
Sterling was set up early by De Bruyne for a shot which was comfortably blocked by Phil Jones and not until the 40th minute was there another glimpse of goal, a 30-yard free-kick from Yaya Toure being deflected behind and the same City man heading just wide from De Bruyne’s resulting corner. Toure had been pushed into a more advanced role by Manuel Pellegrini, operating as an orthodox striker alongside Wilfried Bony on occasion, but his presence further up the field hardly added any more offensive clout to proceedings although, after the restart, early signs were more promising.
Martial sparked a flurry of attacking momentum which ended with Herrera’s shot being deflected behind and Smalling seeing his header from Mata’s corner bouncing agonisingly wide. Pellegrini orchestrated the game’s first tactical switch, fleet-footed winger Jesus Navas replacing Sterling and switching De Bruyne to City’s left, but it was a lazy attempted offside trap by his defence that almost allowed Mata to reach Marcos Rojo’s through ball with Hart required to sprint from his area to intercept. His first activity of the day, in the 63rd minute. Louis van Gaal responded in kind, Lingard replacing the ineffective Mata in a wide position and soon creating an opening with a well-judged through ball which Rooney gathered but succeeded only in squaring to a blue-shirted defender.
It was typical of the afternoon but at least it gave hope, and breathed life, into the home supporters and the fact that Toure was brought off with 13 minutes remaining and replaced by central defender Martin Demichelis suggested Pellegrini was viewing a point as a decent enough outcome. Two late United chances did little to improve the game’s status as one of the most disappointing Manchester derbies of the Premier League era.
De Gea 6; Valencia 7 (Darmian 81, 6), Jones 7, Smalling 6, Rojo 6; Schneiderlin 6, Schweinsteiger 6 (Fellaini 74, 6); Mata 5 (Lingard 66, 6), Herrera 6, Martial 8; Rooney 6.
Memphis, Carrick, Blind, Romero.
Hart 7; Sagna 5, Kompany 5, Otamendi 6, Kolarov 5; De Bruyne 7, Fernandinho 7, Fernando 7, Sterling 5 (Navas 55, 6); Toure 5 (Demichelis 77, 6); Bony 5 (Iheanacho 82, 6).
Zabaleta, Caballero, Mangala, Roberts.