Another home game, another humbling from their rivals. The two-goal margin between these Manchester teams flattered the figures in red, beaten but not quite battered this time. Even so, one wonders what is next for the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer project.
Seven goals without reply in back-to-back games against Liverpool and Manchester City at Old Trafford have provided a chastening reminder of the gulf in quality. And those teams are not even top. Chelsea can open up an 11-point gap on United after 11 games.
The average number of Premier League matches that the eventual champions have lost in the eight seasons since Manchester United last won the title is exactly four. This United side have now lost that many in the last six weeks. Even being in the race looks beyond them.
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It is a club caught between the present and the past. Perhaps the biggest club in the world, as Solskjaer argued this week, but still second best in their own city. A club so steeped in its traditions that the coach continues to be feted by fans even as results elude him.
The recent improvement, albeit against an insipid Tottenham team, had been achieved by taking a backward step. There was an acceptance that United could not press the opposition or keep the ball. Limitations acknowledged, they reverted to the counter-attack.
It might work more often if there were a solid base upon which United could rely but they have mustered only two clean sheets this season and another never looked likely against this City side. When Eric Bailly put through his own net, they had a problem.
With no pressing strategy, how were they supposed to win the ball back against a Pep Guardiola side with no appetite to surrender possession so easily? Manchester City had 68 per cent of the ball and completed more than twice as many passes.
As Guardiola put it, they put United in the fridge, starving them of the ball, taking the sting out of an opponent whose best bet was to involve the crowd and raise the temperature of the contest.
Solskjaer had said he “liked the attitude and the focus this morning” in his pre-match interview but more is needed than that. United continue to look like a team stitched together by hope, dreams and the ageing body of Cristiano Ronaldo.
‘Match scarf or Ronaldo’ had been the cry from the hawkers along Sir Matt Busby Way before kick-off, a neat but unwitting shorthand for the contest ahead. There were two shows in town – the Manchester City machine and United’s one-man salvage operation.
Ronaldo has already dragged Solskjaer’s side towards the knockout stages of the Champions League, his late goals worth five points. In the Premier League, it has been a little less dramatic but the reliance on him conjuring something has still been obvious.
Coming into the derby, he had made six starts since his return. The matches in which he had scored, United had won. The matches in which he had failed to find the net, United had lost. The message to Guardiola was clear – stop him scoring and it was job done.
Ronaldo did go close with a supremely-struck volley but was otherwise thwarted by the assistant referee’s offside flag. That one attempt – the only save Ederson was required to make – came from the one spell of possession that United had near the City box.
It is said that they play in moments, which feels like another way of saying that their good players are still capable of doing good things, through spontaneity or muscle memory rather than any coherent structure. When the moment does not come, United have little else.
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The fans’ frustration was evident from soon after the opener, Bruno Fernandes’ repeatedly giving up possession too easily. But the difficulty for the United players was how quickly they were being closed down, Bernardo Silva and Gabriel Jesus pressing incessantly.
City won the ball back inside United’s defensive third on nine different occasions during the opening 45 minutes. The only other time that has happened in the Premier League this season was when Southampton did so in August – also against United.
Before long, the anxiety was palpable, on the pitch and in the stands, supporters urging David de Gea not to play the ball short from goal-kicks. They knew that it was merely inviting pressure and the belief that their team could keep it in those situations was shot.
While the fans wanted more, this was a team trying to figure out the solutions on the fly. There was a vague idea that playing out from the back would be desirable but they seemed to know none of the intricate passing patterns that might help make it happen.
Solskjaer might have hoped that his wing-backs would provide the route out of the press but Guardiola was wise to it – instructing Phil Foden and Jesus to remain high and wide. It left United with a flat back five, Joao Cancelo with the freedom of Old Trafford.
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A formation change at half-time tried to resolve that but United were two down by then, courtesy of another mishap. Luke Shaw was culpable, De Gea too – though any blame put on him should be mitigated by the series of saves he had already had to make.
The second half became an exercise in damage limitation. Ole football versus Ole’s football. How good does it feel? That rhetorical question is one for everyone at Old Trafford to ponder during the international break, this latest revival amounting to just one win.
What is next? When the Premier League action resumes, there are more dangers ahead. Watford away precedes a trip to Stamford Bridge before Arsenal come to Old Trafford. An easier looking run of fixtures after that might yet provide some respite for Solskjaer.
Perhaps that will be a chance for Ronaldo to plunder and points to be harvested as United look to finish as the best of the rest and secure the top-four finish that might just prolong this stasis. Too good to prompt a change of course, not good enough to compete.
But with Solskjaer still putting out fires as he approaches three years in the job, what is now clear is that there are three teams in this Premier League title race.
Manchester United are not one of them.