There are no silver linings to a massacre; no extenuating circumstances in a 6-1 defeat to City at Old Trafford; and no excuse for heads floating away to their million-pound Cheshire mansions in with time still left on the clock.
No doubt, had Jonny Evans remained on the pitch, the final scoreline would not have resembled that of a one sided tennis set, but Balotelli’s first half opener was hardly against the run of play. United seemed over-anxious and struggled to find their grip on the game from the off. When they did have the ball however, the reds seemed to almost hyperventilate; their passing disheveled and erratic in comparison to the snappy, clicking triangles of Silva and co. They played like tensed up perfectionists trying to force hollywood football into their game. Without the shared harmony, pose and individual sharpness required though, United looked off the pace. Whilst a commitment to beautiful football is admirable, there’s nothing sexy about limp impotency.
Even before the match it was clear that with City’s skill and steel through the middle, the wings were where the reds would find their best hunting. In the first 45 minutes at least, United enjoyed some dominance at the byline with Ashley Young frequently blasting past Micah Richards and Chris Smalling bounding down the right to support Nani. Dangerous though these forward surges appeared, at least to a United fan desperate for a morale lifting goal, any such ‘threats’ down the flanks were largely superficial. Kompany’s well marshalled defensive line held firm and kept their shape.
Whilst United’s wide-men could beat their men to the corner flag, there was little opportunity to profit from such positions. There seemed to be a lack of planning and direction on the field, as if the players preferred to rely on ad-libbing to breakdown the tall walls Mancini had assembled. Without a sense of attacking organisation, United’s offensives were bit-part and edgeless rather than spontaneous and unpredictable. As with their reckless passing, this extreme fluidity had worked well for them in the opening weeks of the season, including their 3-2 Community Shield win against City. Without that August fresh form and dialled in, collective telepathy however, Sir Alex Ferguson’s charges seemed muddled and rambling.
Without a clear course of action, or structure to find purpose within and regroup, United struggled to get into the game mentally. Beyond the sense of nervy agitation within their play, their desire to win seemed dulled by trepidation under the harsh glare of the occasion. United looked like a team with everything to lose; rattled from the off. City were cool, calm and full of confidence, ready and willing to take full advantage of their opponent’s self-doubts. Mancini’s authoritarian shtick was whittled his unruly squad down to a coherent and hardworking team, able to remain patient under pressure. With Silva as their consumate mastermind, City analysed the red shirted hurly burly throw at them in response to Evan’s dismissal before picking them to pieces with a ruthless accuracy and a calculating schadenfreude.
Four of City’s six goals came from balls fired across the De Gea’s goal, but it wasn’t shape stretching wing play that destroyed United. Mancini had his midfielders set up to counter-charge upfield in one almighty wave as soon as they had control of the ball. Besides David Silva, the brains, James Milner was key. With his rapid servicing and enterprising runs forwards City seemed able to morph their outfield into one sweeping, blitzkrieg front that trampled over their red menace with élan. There was little real width though, with the likes of Milner, Balotelli and Richards cutting inside before exploding out from the midfield, diagonally toward the near-flanks on the edges of the box; from the centre out to the corners. Rather than getting behind the United defense, City simply ran at them as one, shredding through their lines carte blanche. Evra and Smalling couldn’t cope. Out wide they were an irrelevance to the column charing through the middle; drifting into the centre there didn’t seem to be any real target selection or reasoned response to the oncoming, laser blue horde.
It is laughable that even now Wesley Sneijder is being touted as United’s missing midfield link. He is quickly becoming the big name blurted from the lips of little Englanders, who assume that, with his price tag and media coverage, he must be the answer to all our dreams and prayers. To see what effect Sneijder would have had on Sunday’s result, you need look no further than Wayne Rooney. Playing in the hole, the very position the Dutchman occupies, Rooney was forced deeper to help out in the guts of the team. Luckily he maintains the attributes to contribute to battle in its grittier forms, something Sneijder lacks. Wesley would be a second Berbatov at best.
Considering Darren Fletcher and Anderson both require team mates to cover their shortcomings – offering easy passing options and defensive cover respectively – their partnership was a match made in a straightjacket, drunk. We could rail against the sins of United’s rearguards on derby day, but a team must defend from its front. The back four is the very last line of defence, and with United’s anonymous midfield (bar the odd juggernaut run from Anderson in the first half) Rio, Evans, Smallin and Evra were hung out to dry. With more support and initiative breaking down the play further up field, its unlikely Evans would have had to make such a fumbling challenge on Balotelli.
Whilst we all have our favourite players, offering up a list of midfielders from around the globe as some huge, as some pond-sign shaped solution to magic away United’s ills would be a hopelessly tragic. 6-1 is sheer slaughter, but it is but one battle in a prolonged war that the reds will be fighting all the way to the end. First though, Sir Alex Ferguson must lift the heads of his team and United back to winning ways as soon as possible. After all, it’s far easier to resist looking back on past mistakes when you’re hurtling forwards at the speed of light.
Considering just how differently a very open the match against Chelsea could have gone, and the issues at the heart of some of United’s more lacklustre showings of late, a suckerpunch was more than due, and the fateful narrative of the title race depended it was landed by City.
The returns, proper, of Nemanja Vidic and Tom Cleverley peep over the horizon though, and in terms of rebound fixtures, a league cup tie with Aldershot could not come at a better time. With a Premiership start that’s included an 8-2 drubbing of Arsenal, an incredible Chelsea loss to QPR and Newcastle in the top four, rest assured this season’s league has plenty of unpredictable life left in it.
“I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it. Football. Bloody hell.”