Put a positive spin on it, some Manchester United supporters were heard to say after the Reds capitulated at Wigan Athletic on Wednesday night. ‘This night,’ they continued, ‘is a wake up call for the squad. They won’t blow it now.’ Indeed, the oldest cliché of them all – ‘trust in Sir Alex’ – was commonplace, as was talk of United’s five point Premier League lead. All true, but little more than a mask for the most calamitous performance of United’s season – and there have been some corkers.
From the horrific complacency, to the bizarre tactical mish-mash, this was a United performance with no equal this season, coming at a crucial time to boot. Hubris is for the fans though, not players, and certainly not United’s manager.
But few supporters can genuinely say this wasn’t coming, following sub-par performances against Norwich City, Fulham and Queens Park Rangers in recent weeks, when United could easily have dropped more points. That is to say little of the disastrous Europa League campaign.
No, it was depth not the manner of United’s performance that shocked.
Almost none of Sir Alex’ side, nor indeed the manager himself, escaped the DW Stadium with dignity or reputation intact. Old hands, in particular, had such poor nights that they have much to answer for. The experience Ferguson has based his challenge on displayed such immaturity that the manager may need to quickly recalibrate.
But for Manchester City’s own capitulation in recent weeks, it could have been a season defining – or ending – result.
This was no fluke though. The home side was so much sharper, hungrier, and more determined right from the start, with United’s players seemingly so complacent about an impending title win, that more than one supporter was compelled to ask whether Ferguson’s team was collectively inebriated. Drinking, perhaps, in the dressing room. Heavily. The fruity Belgium ale that leaves the imbibed seeing double, and nursing the mother of all hangovers the morning after.
“Wigan were the better team. We were second to every ball and only had one shot at goal,” admitted Ferguson, who was unusually forthright in his criticism.
“It was one of these off-nights you get. We have been on a great run. It has been tremendous and it has put us in a position where we can win the league, and we have to get over the disappointment of tonight.
“It was a disappointing performance throughout the game. We didn’t reach a level we have been used to in the last few months. A couple of months ago City were something like 5-1 on and we were well behind them in terms of goal difference and points, and we have to take some credit that we have got ourselves back into the race. It is important to win our home games now.”
But the players were only part of the problem of course. Ferguson, who has driven a squad with limitations beyond what many had predicted this season, must also share culpability for defeat against a team United had beaten 14 times in succession. After all, while the Scot’s decision to rest Paul Scholes was not unexpected, the tactical mess was entirely the manager’s doing.
Moreover, United’s inability to deal with Wigan’s 3-4-3 formation in the opening period was forgiveable, but Ferguson’s bizarre decision to deploy almost every forward and midfielder out-of-position, even after a round of substitutions, played a significant part in defeat.
Pity, then, that the United manager should focus not on the lessons learned, but the failings of others. Referee Phil Dowd, for example, took the brunt of Ferguson’s anger for not awarding United a second half penalty when Maynor Figueroa handled Phil Jones’ cross.
“Figueroa didn’t seem to handle it – he did handle it,” the United manager added.
“The thing is, if he had been close to Phil Jones then you would say you are not going to get that kind of decision but he was 15 yards away. That was disappointing. Sometimes you get the breaks and sometimes you don’t. Last Sunday we got a break [against QPR] and it evens itself out over the season. They talk about the big clubs getting all the big decisions but tonight we didn’t get one. I thought Phil Dowd had a disappointing night, I must say.”
It was a churlish line of thinking, especially when defender Jonny Evans escaped a second yellow for a late challenge that would have troubled many official’s books. The inevitable red and one-match ban that would have followed are spared, and Ferguson should be grateful for it. Nor too should United supporters forget Wigan’s opener, chalked off for an apparent foul on David de Gea.
But in truth the United coach will move on quickly from defeat and on to Aston Villa at Old Trafford this weekend, followed by Everton a week later. In that he will inevitably invoke another of the season’s tiresome clichés and call for ‘a response’, as the Scot has done following defeats to City, Blackburn Rovers, Newcastle and repeatedly in Europe this season.
Indeed, each calamitous defeat has been labelled a wake-up call, with Ferguson calling for the inevitable response from his troops. It is, we are told, the United way. Cyncis might question the quality of the Scot’s squad.
Yet, after 11 domestic wins in the past 13 matches it is cantankerous to criticise. Games against Villa, Everton and Swansea at home mean United remains favourite to take a 20th domestic title. But defeat at Wigan could yet haunt the Reds. Imagine, if you will, a realistic scenario in which City beats United at Eastlands on 30 April, potentially leaving the Reds needing a victory over Sunderland on the final day to take the title.
Now that’s a jolt of reality United fans weren’t expecting.