“A man’s work is in danger of deteriorating,” said the eminent American playwright Eugene O’Neill, “when he thinks he has found the one best formula for doing it.”
There are, perhaps, no more apt words for a Manchester United side that believed it had set upon the canon of victory at Old Trafford on Sunday. For what could explain the stupefying casualness with which Sir Alex Ferguson’s med approached the tie with Everton, but for the assumption that the game was already afoot.
Indeed, it took barely two minutes for the restless Old Trafford crowd to conclude that something was amiss in Ferguson’s men. Call it complacency – that most clichéd of football phrases – or over confidence, but not for the first time this season United’s performance lacked all sense of intensity and concentration when those were patently the abiding virtues required.
With just three games remaining in the Premier League season, including the now season-defining visit to Eastlands on Monday week, the sense of antipathy with which United defended in the 4-4 draw against Everton sent the Old Trafford crowd home questioning whether the Reds’ destiny is in their own hands this season.
After all, defeat to City on 30 April will leave Roberto Mancini’s Blues ahead of United on goal difference, with the Reds still to face high-flying Sunderland at the Stadium of Light on the final day of the season.
Given the sides relative form United supporters can no longer count on the Reds securing a result in eight days time; the two points lost against Everton may yet prove to be every bit as calamitous as many fans fear.
“Throwaway,” Ferguson called his team’s performance, after the Scot witnessed some of the most slipshod defending seen this season – and that includes the Derby-day defeat to City last September.
“It was a throwaway, an absolute giveaway,” said a stunned Ferguson.
“We just needed to see the game out and it was a travesty because some of our football was fantastic. The goals we scored were great goals. To give away four goals at Old Trafford in a home game like that which was so important to us is unbelievable. I can’t believe it.
“We’ve created our goals with really good football but I think they got their goals easily. Rooney and Welbeck were a real threat to Everton today, their combination play and understanding of each other was terrific. They should have got more out of the game than they did.
“Defensive lapses have cost us. In previous matches recently we’ve actually defended very well. But this was a bad performance defensively. It was a real blip for us today to get a performance like that. I think the goals we conceded were soft goals.”
Not for the first time the 70-year-old Scot called for a response from his men. Nor for the first time will Ferguson be given pause for thought about his players hunger and quality.
Yet, shockingly, it was some of the manager’s most trusted lieutenants who let him down on Sunday. In midfield it was Michael Carrick, outstanding all season, and veteran Paul Scholes, who repeatedly gifted Everton possession and with it impetus.
Everton’s tactic of hustling the 37-year-old, and his passive midfield team-mate, was a decision both obvious to the observer, and superbly executed.
But it was in defence where United’s outrecuidance shone through. Northern Irishman Jonny Evans, who has been truly superb in a career defining campaign, was at least partially culpable in three Everton goals.
Praised by Ferguson as the “best central defender in the country” this week, Evans lost Marouane Fellaini for Everton’s second, criminally moved away from his defensive zone for the third, and then was all too easily out-maneuvered, once again, by the Belgian for the Toffees’ final equaliser.
Evans was certainly not alone though, with both United full-backs – Patrice Evra and Rafael da Silva – guilty of too easily allowing crosses to come in from the flanks, while the Brazilian made the naïve mistake of following his defensive colleague Evans for Everton’s fourth.
While there is no alternative to Evra at Eastlands next week, Rafael – who has been in fine form during the run in – may be sacrificed for the more defense-minded Chris Smalling for the crunch match with City.
After all, City need the win, while United must simply fight the fight as if it is the final of their careers; a response of unprecedented proportions.
“We’ve given City the initiative, there’s no question about that,” added Ferguson, who is seeking his 13th Premier League title.
“It makes the game at the Etihad Stadium a really important game now. It makes it the title decider really. We’ve given ourselves a real task at the Etihad. We’ll go there only three points ahead.
“We make it hard for ourselves but we have to go there knowing we’re capable of getting a result. We need to get a result now at the Etihad, there’s no question about that. There’s no reason why we can’t do that. There’s been an expectancy from City that this could be their decider. But it’s our decider too.
“There’ll be a reaction from us obviously. There’s no question about that. A derby game next Monday against City would always have been a derby game of the highest proportions.”
United cannot guarantee results against Swansea City at Old Trafford and Sunderland – not with the Reds having taken just four points from games with Wigan Athletic, Aston Villa, and Everton – but defeat to City would surely be momentous.
But at least there will be recognition from Ferguson’s players that they have one final chance this season; an opportunity on Monday week to wrest the initiative away from a City side that has hit form just in time this season.
In that there should be both anger and genuine fire from United’s stars – youthful and veteran – in whom Ferguson has placed so much faith during an époque of comparative parsimony from the boardroom. If the Scot’s men cannot respond to this latest self-inflicted wound then even the most partizan United supporter will concede that a 20th domestic title has not been earned.
“There is anger from the players, of course, because we wanted to win. We’re disappointed to lose four goals. But that’s football. It can happen sometimes,” Portuguese winger Nani told MUTV.
“The concentration was not the best in the last few minutes – that’s why they were able to create chances and score goals. We had a lot of possession and played some fantastic football in attack. But we conceded too many goals and we’re not happy about that.
“We have to keep believing in our qualities because we still have a great opportunity to win the title. It’s a huge game [at City] – there will be a fantastic atmosphere there. It will be a difficult game, but if you want to win the league you cannot think about the atmosphere or the opponents, we must just think about the way we play and try to win the game.”
Meanwhile, Ferguson is likely to string five across midfield at Eastlands, with star striker Wayne Rooney – who’s brace against his old employers were the 32nd and 33rd strikes of a productive season – either dropping deep to augment midfield, or ploughing a lone furrow up front.
And there will be little surprise if the Scot deploys his favoured ‘European’ tactics of containment first, and entertainment second. If nobel prize-winning playwright O’Neill, ever the arch realist, was alive he might well concur.
United supporters will welcome a point in lieu of free-flowing football, of course. What nobody will countenance is another bout of conceit.