Scrutinising Sir Alex Ferguson’s team sheet for the first time shortly after 7.15pm on Monday night many Reds were reminded of that old John Cleese jibe. You know the one about it not being the despair, but the hope that he could not stand. Mercifully, for those fans suffering under the strain of the Premier League run-in, all hope was swiftly killed by Sir Alex’ selection. Not for the first time supporters can be thankful to the great man, although far from the manner in which many have become accustomed over the past 25 years.
The team selection was, after all, patently absurd to those who stood in bars or on terraces and observed, mouths collectively aghast, as the Scot sought to meet Manchester City’s vibrancy and athleticism with a quartet of players unfit for the task. Fortunate, then, for those desperate to end the pain of hope that Ferguson should compound his irresistible urge to tinker by moving United’s better players around, or indeed, out of the team altogether.
What amusement Sir Alex must have found in deploying Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Ryan Giggs and Park Ji-Sung – each of whom was so undercooked for United’s biggest game of the season that it was unfair to expect anything less than sub-par performances. How the Scot japed when dropping Antonio Valencia and Danny Welbeck, or shifting 33 goal striker Wayne Rooney away from the deeper position in which he has flourished this season.
Except the joke was all on supporters who gathered in the hope that United could stop City’s oil-fueled juggernaut for this season at least. It quickly turned to despair.
It is hard to point the finger of criticism at players – it is not the United way. After all, many of these players were placed in an impossibly difficult position.
Smalling was drafted in as an emergence centre back following Jonny Evans’ injury against the Toffees last weekend. The former Fulham defender has suffered with injury recently, starting a league game for the first time this year at Eastlands. It was hardly the youngster’s fault, but Smalling’s rustiness was exposed repeatedly on the night, not least by Vincent Kompany’s 45th minute winning goal.
With one enforced change in defence it made little sense to willingly foist another upon the team. Jones has suffered a nightmare run-in, with injuries and a dramatic loss of form hampering the teenager’s progress in all of the three positions that Ferguson has deployed the 19-year-old.
In truth Jones was a bizarre choice at right-back, selected apparently for his height, but displaying all the ‘headless chicken’ qualities that had fans mocking comparisons with the late, great, Duncan Edwards. Shouts of “Duncan! Duncan!” rang around one bar packed with more than 500 Reds on each occasion Jones’ first touch was heavy, and the second was inevitably a tackle.
Meanwhile, Rafael was dropped after one poor performance in the past three months – that against Everton last weekend. In truth it was the kind of slack defensive show that Ferguson’s favourite lieutenant Patrice Evra has descended to on an almost weekly basis.
Yet, the United manager’s odd team selection didn’t end with the back-four. In midfield Ferguson drafted in both Giggs and Park – two players who have between them produced zero stellar performances this season. The Welshman is a genuine legend in an era when that superlative is greatly abused. But, it is a painful truth to admit that the 39-year-old has also suffered, by some considerable distance, his worst ever season in a United shirt.
Good job for those still burdened with hope, Cleese might add, that Giggs was made to “run up and down the bloody touchline” by Ferguson – the very the role United’s manager admitted four years ago that the Welshman could no longer perform.
And if Giggs’ 75 per cent pass completion rate was not wasteful enough, then Sir Alex followed up the Welshman’s inclusion by deploying Park – a player whose one-time epithet of ‘three lungs’ now looks embarrassingly wayward. Thankfully, the former PSV player only touched the ball 17 times – falling over more often than not, those of a crueler persuasion might add.
Unfortunately, Park’s direct competitor Yaya Touré made four times as many passes, as the Ivorian stamped his undoubted authority on the match.
Elsewhere Rooney was moved from the ‘hole’, disrupting a vibrant and productive partnership with Welbeck, and forcing the Scouser to plough a very lonely furrow up front. Meanwhile, United’s most productive player in recent months, Valencia, was dropped for the supposedly more defensively secure Park. It beggared belief.
Yet, none of this really mattered compared to the style in which United played; negative, scared and inhibited. This too was not the United way, and it was becoming neither of players nor manager to perform in fashion that yielded not a single shot on target all night. It was the first time that United had stooped to that particular low in more than three years.
In truth, although Ferguson had vehemently proclaimed otherwise pre-match, United sought nothing more than parity with City and paid a stiff penalty. Ferguson’s team got the defeat the selection, tactics and attitude fully deserved.
Patently, the Scot did not trust a midfield pairing of Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes that had been over-run by Everton the weekend before. With good reason – Scholes’ 37-year-old legs looked their age against the Merseysiders for the first time since the midfielder’s reintroduction to the United team in January. Carrick, outstanding all season, retreated into his shell.
On the night the pair simply could not cope with City’s energy, even if the pass completion ratio was at more than 90 per cent. That neither player made more than 50 successful passes tells a more pertinent story though. Carrick has exceeded 100 numerous times this season, but was unable to exert any control over proceedings on Monday night.
If parking the bus was designed to gain United a point then fans can ask whether the Reds genuinely held a contingency plan? After all, Valencia did not enter the field until the game was almost up, while Ashley Young saw just six minutes of action. United’s caution, as Roberto Mancini astutely observed in the aftermath, was the side’s undoing. City simply wanted victory more.
Little wonder that Ferguson was apoplectic on the sidelines. But it is not unfair to suggest that his ire was directed inwards, and towards neither Mancini, nor the officials. The Scot’s team selection universally backfired, while the tactical approach has brought little bar condemnation.
Moreover, failure at Eastlands simply compounds the real problem this season – United is likely to lose the Premier League title not solely because of double-defeat to City, but through dropped points against Blackburn Rovers, Everton and Wigan Athletic. In each United was exposed both by the opposition and outrageous complacency. The team has proven itself simply not good enough to play with conceit.
The words of a spoilt generation, some will argue. But few Reds want a return to, say, the 1980s when United was subservient not to City, but Liverpool. Yet, this is the doomsday scenario prompted by such comprehensive defeat.
As more than one observer mused today, City’s victory and probable title win could be the springboard for a period of domination. The club will be able to strengthen from a very healthy position, removing any dead wood and unwanted distractions, while leveraging Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth to acquire almost any player available.
Meanwhile, United is quite obviously playing catch-up, with Ferguson at the very limit of his almost limitless power to extract far more than the sum of the parts from his squad. When the greatest manager in the game’s history also makes calamitous mistakes, as he did on Monday, everything falls apart.
City’s victory may be a portent of things to come. United has lost 11 times this season, while exiting four cup competitions at an early stage. It is likely to be United’s first trophyless season for eight years. That glorious run is to Ferguson’s eternal credit during an era of Glazer-inspired parsimony that has eroded the squad’s quality-in-depth.
Nobody should question Ferguson’s ability, but his choices on Monday were proven disastrously wrong. Unfortunately, the talent available is such that United no longer has a margin for error.
And if – it still remains an “if” – United is to end the campaign without silverware then the nightmare scenario of Liverpool, City and perhaps even Chelsea each claiming glory at home or abroad will remind supporters of a certain generation that the club has no divine right to victory. There is no shame coming second as long as there is a strategy to compete.
And that is the rub, of course. Fans fear, with ample evidence, that United simply cannot or will not compete with rivals in the Premier League or Europe. Queue, cynics might add, the soon-to-come proclamations of a belief in youth, the lack of value in the market, or the apparent talent in droves held by Park, Anderson, Michael Owen, Bébé or any other under-performing budget purchase.
But eventually fans will shake off Monday’s disappointment. Slowly, optimism will return, even if the Premier League trophy is paraded in front of Manchester Town Hall on a Blue open-top bus.
Whatever the summer brings, eventually hope will raise its head once again; the despair of Monday night forgotten. Until, of course, the next occasion on which United turns out, without truly turning up. It’s the hope that hurts the most.