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, avoiding references to "six" – United have allowed 91 shots on their goal at home this season and not without good reason.
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, from a United perspective, though not entirely surprising. A less profligate Chelsea would have beaten United at Old Trafford on 18 September. Norwich did them serious damage; so, too, Basle, and when Sir Alex Ferguson tried a different midfield formation at Anfield it did not work.
Since Ferguson is opting for a two-man, 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.
United's problem is one of personnel, not least in the shape of Anderson. When the season began, it seemed we really were watching the player 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". That's not how it has looked this month. Anderson's removal just after the hour at Old Trafford suggested Ferguson concluded as much.
The most significant aspect of Fletcher's post-match discussion of the game yesterday was the role he has assumed as a dressing-room leader – "As I kept reiterating to the lads after the game, 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 players Ferguson needs, those capable of breaking up, dictating and controlling play, and there's no greater evidence of that than the premature talk of Tom Cleverley as a saviour.
The 22-year-old's own performance in turning around the Community Shield has prompted all the optimism, though the bare facts are that he has started only four league games for United – not much of a track record to base such great hopes upon. The expectation heaped on him is all the greater, given Michael Carrick's curious omission from Ferguson's Premier League midfield. He has yet to start a league game for Ferguson this season.
It is easy to see why the return of Cleverley, currently out with foot ligament damage, so appeals – resembling, as he does, Paul Scholes, whose retirement is already being felt. "He never talks much, he just does his job on the pitch," Patrice Evra said of Cleverley earlier this season. "Players like him are the future and, to win the league, the boss is not going to be afraid to give young players a chance. He knows they can help us to win more titles. That's the United way."
Fletcher put the defeat to down to naivety. "Maybe we were a bit naive playing to try to win the game when it was conceivably not possible," he said yesterday. "When you are at Old Trafford the lads like to get the ball down and play it. It is the way we are brought up. But those last three goals are hard to take."
Nemanja Vidic's absence was another factor – and United's announcement yesterday of his retirement from the Serbia national side is significant. Vidic tends to take several games to recover from enforced lay-offs and, but for his decision to play for his nation against Slovenia, he might have been available to face City.
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