Manchester United returned to non-winning ways at home to Southampton last weekend, with Charlie Austin netting a late winner at Old Trafford. It was a serious contender for one of the worst performances in this most dire of seasons, and normally at this point we'd be writing some journalist cliché like the 'pressure continues to mount' on Louis van Gaal. However, if there is any pressure on the Dutchman, it's certainly not coming from the club's hierarchy, with chief executive Ed Woodward content to stick his fingers in his ears and scream "LA LA LA" at the top of his voice.
However, the supporters' discontent would only grow louder if United slip up again on Friday, when they travel to play Championship outfit Derby County. At the start of the season they were one of the favourites for promotion, having made the rather exotic managerial appointment of Carlo Ancelotti's former right-hand man Paul Clement. However, on close inspection their squad rather reads like a who's who of Premier League rejects, and and with the Rams having failed to win in the league this calendar year, United don't have much to fear.
Alas, United continue to have major injury problems in defence. Marcos Rojo, Antonio Valencia, Matteo Darmian, Ashley Young and Luke Shaw are all sidelined (that's a remarkable five full-backs or makeshift full-backs), which could force van Gaal into more imaginative selection decisions in defence. Paddy McNair will vie for a slot on the right side of defence with Guillermo Varela, whose move to Serie A side Genoa was reportedly blocked by Van Gaal. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Phil Jones are unlikely to make appearances, though Michael Carrick could start after returning from an injury layoff.
Derby, meanwhile, will be without young midfield star Will Hughes, as well as defenders Jake Buxton and Craig Forsyth. Otherwise, Clement should have a full-strength team to choose from.
Despite their unglamorous squad and poor recent form, Derby's statistics in the Championship so far this season have been impressive. Only Brentford have averaged a greater share of possession; while no one has been able to better their pass completion percentage of 79.3%.
If Louis van Gaal's been good for anything, it has been demonstrating that tidy passing and plenty of possession doesn't necessarily mean either pretty football or impressive results. However, Derby haven't been too bad at converting their control into goals. Only the league's top three (Derby are currently fifth) have a superior goal difference, with the Rams having netted 39 times and conceded 25 in the 28 matches they've played so far.
That said, there are obvious concerns about the side's poor run of recent form, and their defensive record in particular. They've shipped seven goals in their last couple of matches, and it remains to be seen if Clement's blunt motivational approach is doing more harm than good. He described their recent home draw with reading as an "awful team performance, awful individually," bere declaring that he couldn't "think of anything positive about the performance." Not exactly Ancelotti-esque.
However, United shouldn't get complacent: they certainly do have the potential to cause problems. Striker Chris Martin is ostensibly a rather rudimentary target man, though with nine goals and five assists to his name so far this season, he has plenty to his game. Elsewhere, United should be wary of the pace and skill of wingers Johnny Russell and Tom Ince, while former Middlesbrough man Jacob Butterfield will likely be given the chief creative task from the centre of midfield.
Derby County (4-3-3): Scott Carson; Stephen Warnock, Jason Shackell, Richard Keogh, Cyrus Christie; Bradley Johnson, George Thorne, Jacob Butterfield; Nick Blackman, Chris Martin, Tom Ince.
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): David de Gea; Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Daley Blind, Chris Smalling, Paddy McNair; Morgan Schneiderlin, Michael Carrick; Anthony Martial, Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard; Wayne Rooney.