One thing Sir Alex Ferguson has always prided himself on in the course of a remarkable managerial career is his teams' reaction to defeat.
At Manchester United, where such events occur only four or five times in the course of a Premier League season, it is almost unthinkable that there should not be an immediate improvement, frequently preceded by a blast from the hairdryer and a shaking up of the starting XI.
When two successive defeats were suffered last March, by Liverpool and then Fulham, it was the first time such a thing had happened for almost 150 matches. So on Saturday Wigan Athletic were on a hiding to not very much, and the hiding duly materialised.
Their new manager Roberto Martinez feared as much, admitting both before and after the game that he would not have chosen to play the champions three days after they had lost to Burnley, a team which 12 months earlier had been 23rd in the Championship. Defeat by one minor Lancashire rival might be considered a misfortune, but two would have been condemned as something more serious than mere carelessness.
"We had to do something about it," Ferguson said of Wednesday's embarrassment. What he did was demonstrate the enviable strength of his squad by dropping the whole midfield. Park Ji-Sung, Michael Carrick, Anderson and Ryan Giggs were all left out; Antonio Valencia, Darren Fletcher, Paul Scholes and Nani looked a more solid combination. Valencia, initially applauded on his old stamping ground then later booed, created the first goal with his cross for Wayne Rooney, Fletcher worked harder than anyone, Scholes successfully negotiated a tightrope after being booked in the 18th minute and Nani, who may yet flourish away from Cristiano Ronaldo's shadow, made the fourth goal for Michael Owen and scored the fifth.
Nani's sharp pass offered Owen the sort of opportunity he has been failing to put away until now, and the relief at his first competitive goal since scoring for Newcastle against West Ham on 10 January was shared by United's supporters, staff and, not least, the player himself. What Owen has to do, before thinking about impressing Fabio Capello as much as Ferguson (another England squad is announced this week) is to prove he can make an impression from the start rather than against tired defenders.
In the meantime he is taking a defensive stance in the face of criticism. "There has been quite a lot made of the fact I hadn't scored," he said. "Today's chance was only the fourth chance I've had in a Manchester United shirt. I scored four in pre-season and didn't miss a chance, scoring everything in front of me." Capello would beg to differ.
Wigan have never suffered a heavier defeat since joining the Football League, let alone the Premier League. Although they are accustomed to losing to United – this was the 10th defeat out of 10 – Wolves also won at the DW Stadium in the past week, which has been a bucket of ice-cold water after the warm glow of victory at Villa Park on the opening weekend.
"The first goal affected us psychologically," Martinez said, which does not speak well for his players. "But slowly we'll get there." How slowly must concern the home supporters, or at least those who bothered to turn up. Even with United filling the away end, the attendance was 3,000 down on last season's fixture.
Wigan (4-2-3-1): Kirkland; Melchiot, Scharner, Bramble, Figueroa; Thomas, Diame (McCarthy, 73); N'Zogbia (Scotland, 73), Gomez, Koumas (Sinclair, 62); Rodallega. Substitutes not used: Pollitt (gk), Edman, Boyce, King.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Foster; Neville, Vidic, Evans (O'Shea, 71), Evra; Valencia, Fletcher, Scholes (Gibson, 71), Nani; Berbatov, Rooney (Owen, 71). Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Giggs, Welbeck, Fabio da Silva.
Referee: H Webb (Sheffield).
Booked: Wigan Scharner, Rodallega; Manchester United Scholes, Evra.
Man of the match: Rooney.
Attendance: 18,164.Reuse content