Conceding six goals can be an omen. The last time it happened to Manchester United – at Southampton in October 1996 in a game which, as Roy Keane later recalled, meant their fans could not leave the house for "the jeering, the mocking, the sneering" – the obituaries were being written. The United side that had shipped five at St James' Park six days earlier would also lose at home to Chelsea, before setting off on a near six-month unbeaten run which saw them home to their fourth title in five years.
That was some team, though: one populated by Keane, Eric Cantona in his last season and David Beckham, to name but three, and which would have made the Champions League final but for defeat to Borussia Dortmund. The squad that picked up the pieces of a 6-1 derby defeat yesterday had a rather different complexion. While rumours of their demise would be premature after one defeat – "1-0 or that scoreline is the same points difference," said Darren Fletcher (above), avoiding references to "six" – United have allowed 91 shots on their goal at home this term.
In 1996, Keane complained that United were in a comfort zone and being overwhelmed by complacency. Fifteen years on, the midfield looks anything but comfortable. The ease with which David Silva, Sergio Aguero, Mario Balotelli and James Milner processed through it on Sunday was unsettling.
Since Sir Alex Ferguson is opting for a two- rather than three-man combination in the middle, there is no margin for error, but neither Anderson nor Fletcher could contain City's offensive threat and it meant that Silva slipped into pockets of space more easily than Lionel Messi did for Barcelona at Wembley last May.
Anderson sums it up: described in 2007 by Mario Zagallo, Brazil's World Cup-winning coach of 1970, as a "prodigy with indisputable quality" (for whom "everything suggests he is going to be a superstar"), he was taken off just after the hour on Sunday.
The most significant aspect of Fletcher's talk yesterday was the role he has assumed as a dressing-room leader – "As I kept reiterating to the lads, remember how it feels to lose by this scoreline," he said – but he had hardly fulfilled the Keane role of tracking players and seizing possession. The string-pullers are the types needed, those capable of breaking up, dictating and controlling play. The question fans ask: is the return of the injured Tom Cleverley United's last hope?