I’m not sure if I can remember a day when I have felt so gutted by a result as I did today following Man City’s 6-1 thrashing of Derby rivals Man Utd at Old Trafford. The only memories that come close take me back to 1978, when as a loyal Stretford Ender standing in the cold and the rain, I witnessed 5-3 and 3-0 thrashings by both West Bromwich Albion and Liverpool respectively within the space of 3-4 days around Christmas time. Those games represented the bottom of the barrel for me as the future looked bleak with both Liverpool and Nottingham Forest clearly dominating English football at the time, and I had hoped that I would never feel that badly again, especially after a home game. My hopes had pretty well come true, up until today of course.
It’s difficult to know where to start after a hammering of that magnitude especially considering how dominant United were at the beginning of this season with an 8-2 win over Arsenal, a 3-1 win over Chelsea, a 5-0 win away at Bolton and a 3-0 win over Tottenham. It clearly looked like Ferguson’s new team, filled with home grown young players, was off to a flying start. However, over the last 3-4 weeks, cracks have started to appear in United’s armor and they have stuttered along with mediocre performances against FC Basel, Stoke City, Norwich and Liverpool. I guess the easy place to start, at least for today, was with the red card shown to Johnny Evans. There is no doubt that this was the game breaker, as events turned from bad to worse for United as the game wore on. For me personally though, that is not the main issue here. The problems lie deeper and a little bit more difficult to see on the surface.
If you cast your mind back to the start of the year, you might remember the Community Shield game against Man City where Ferguson’s starting eleven were comprehensively outplayed by Man City in the first half and after 45 minutes, were down 2-0. For the second half, he switched out his veterans Ferdinand, Vidic, and Carrick and threw in his young players Cleverley, Evans, and Jones. United went on to win that game 3-2 and totally dominated the second half. For the home game with Arsenal, he stayed with basically the same line-up that ended the Community Shield game and we all know how well the team played that day, albeit against an Arsenal side in turmoil. Cleverley was injured for the Chelsea game and Hernandez had returned to the line-up, but again the focus was on youth. What I have seen over the last several weeks, is Ferguson’s attempt to try to wean his veterans back into the starting line-ups and as a result, I think, has disrupted the chemistry of his team. Young players need experience, good and bad, in order to develop, and I know the use of the “rotation” system in many ways, determines who wins the League. However, Ferdinand, Carrick, Vidic and Fletcher have all returned and quite simply, are not good enough to start in this current high standard of play at the top of the League.
Following the sending off today, I also thought Ferguson was slow to reshuffle his formation and get some fresh legs out there. He had Phil Jones ready to come on and delayed it for too long. A player of his talent and youth needs to start every game, and I know sometimes that this is all part of his master plan to develop his players into ferocious competitors, but I think there is a time and a place for that sort of thing, and today was neither of those. There’s no doubt that United’s attempt to get back into this game caused them some pain at the end, but that is how they play. You live by the sword, you die by the sword.
Let’s not take anything away from City today though, They were powerful, composed and clinical in front of goal. They defended with discipline and with creative players like Silva, Balotelli, and Aguero, they have their fair share of the difference makers. Roberto Mancini today was also very cautious to keep his team’s feet firmly on the ground and recognised that this was a huge win, but only 3 away points. Man City have yet to play Arsenal, Chelsea, or Liverpool who United have already played, so all is not gloom and doom at Old Trafford. I’ve been around the game for long enough to know that the League title is a marathon and not a sprint, and typically United start slowly and improve as the year progresses, but it’s perfectly clear that this thrashing has caused alarm bells ringing in Ferguson’s mind as he tries to recover his team’s confidence. I would bet that there will be a few new arrivals in the January transfer window as it’s painfully obvious to me that Evra, Anderson, Fletcher and Park are just not up to the task anymore. When your two central midfielders are your two weakest players on the field, then there is trouble on the horizon and now the ball is firmly in City’s court as they have jumped out to a 5 point lead at the top with a healthy goal difference advantage to go with it.
Today Man Utd lost the battle. The war is about to begin.