Match report: Toothless Manchester United run out of comebacks as Norwich take three points
Norwich City 1 Manchester United 0
This time, there was no comeback – except, that is, at the top of the table. Manchester City have returned to the summit as a result of Norwich’s hugely impressive win over Manchester United.
Chris Hughton's superbly-drilled side are now unbeaten in five and showed exactly why, while Alex Ferguson's failed to complete what would have been a sixth comeback in 12 games.
That United couldn't ultimately pull off their most magnificent and memorable magic trick, though, was down to a simple lack of magic in the team as a whole. This was an abnormally flat performance, even if the home side often quashed attacks at source.
"Credit to Norwich," Ferguson simply said afterwards. "They played fantastically well. Their goalkeeper had a good night also. We had a lot of possession and one or two half-chances but no great chances and it wasn't our night."
He could say that again. In fact, many of this campaign's characteristics were completely inverted. United didn't concede early on, but did see the game's key goal go in relatively late on. Meanwhile, the team that had hit an average of almost three goals in their previous 11 games failed to hit the target at all.
Right from the start, there was just something off about United. Although it did initially look as if they were determined to provide the appropriate response to City's earlier 5-0 win over Aston Villa as Robin van Persie forced John Ruddy into a fine save early on, it was telling that they had to wait another 40 minutes for their next effort of note.
It was also hard not to put that down to the alterations in attack. Although Javier Hernandez had forced his way into the team with his own hat-trick against Villa, the dynamic was further altered by the absence of the injured Wayne Rooney. It had a concrete effect on cohesion. There were a number of occasions when a pass was played a little too far or a touch was a little too short. Further back, they were even sloppier in midfield. Ryan Giggs has been a club legend for the past 21 years but the fact that he has been centrally involved in three of United's four defeats this season says much more about the present.
Throughout, United just lacked that drive. Oddly, meanwhile, Robin van Persie lacked his usual cutting edge. On occasions either side of half-time, a chance fell to the striker on his right only for him to rue the fact it wasn't on his left.
Without Rooney, United lacked that crucial battle rage. Norwich, however, provided plenty of it and further bridged the gap between the two teams.
"What pleased me most was that, over 90 minutes, we deserved what we got," Hughton said. "I thought it was such a resilient performance. We reduced them to minimal chances. They got a lot of balls into the box but we defended well as a unit and, with a bit more composure, we could have sealed it earlier.
"It's all about three points. It's a great feeling today because it's Manchester United. After the first few games of the season where we had a few good performances but not results. It's vital we pick up points."
They certainly did that yesterday. Indeed, Norwich are a far cry from the side that conceded five to Fulham on the first day of the season. Not only has Hughton admirably fortified the centre with a new defence, he has made them a real threat out wide.
Throughout the first half, as Anthony Pilkington flashed wide and Chris Smalling was forced to touch away a cross all too close to his own goal, United were forewarned that was where any big threat would come.
When it eventually arrived, though, they couldn't cope with it. Javier Garrido crossed for Pilkington to head home excellently.
Ferguson was then left with no option but to try another of his favoured tricks: introducing Paul Scholes. Although it did make United more imposing, it didn't actually make them more impressive. Chances were still few and far between.
Ferguson made a point of praising John Ruddy after the game but, other than one admittedly magnificent save from sub Danny Welbeck in the dying moments, he didn't actually have that much to do. Still, Hughton talked of how United "tested us more than anybody we've played against this season". "They've shown time after time, [being] 1-0 [down] doesn't make much difference to them." It did yesterday. Ultimately, there was none of the fire of previous late sieges, with Norwich admirably extinguishing even the hint of any threatening spark.
This time, it wasn't so much a case of United running out of time. They were already out of ideas.
Norwich (4-5-1): Ruddy; Whittaker, Bassong, Turner, Garrido; Tettey, Johnson; Snodgrass (E Bennett ,), Hoolahan (Howson, 83), Pilkington; Holt (Morison, 83).
Manchester Utd (4-4-2): Lindegaard; Rafael, Smalling, Ferdinand (Anderson, 83), Evra; Valencia (Scholes, 69), Carrick, Giggs, Young; Van Persie, Hernandez (Welbeck, 69).
Referee: Anthony Taylor (Wythenshawe).
Man of the match: Surname (Team)
Match rating: 6/10
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