It’s early days, of course, not that this will provide much comfort to Manchester United supporters this evening. This afternoon at The Etihad Stadium, David Moyes’ team was blown away by his cross-city rivals, a performance which leaves the defending champions with just two wins from their first five matches of the season and in eighth place in the Premier League table and, in the world of instant gratification that modern football has become, there will doubtlessly be those who will start to wonder whether the end of Alex Ferguson’s era in charge of the club might just be the the end of something altogether more profound. As time passes, empires tend to fall, and some may already be wondering whether signs of this crumbling are already starting to become evident.
“No” is the probable to answer to this question, but it won’t stop the tetchy, the angry and those with a hair-trigger finger from being the most likely to be heard over the next few days. But Manchester United’s shortcomings are only one part of the story of this afternoon’s match. Just as Manchester United lost a manager during the summer, so did Manchester City and, whilst there had been concerns previously that Manuel Pellegrini seemed to be struggling to get the most from his players, this afternoon his team’s performance was one which more than met the sum sum of its parts. To focus on what may or may not be going on at Old Trafford would be disrespectful towards what was the finest performance of the Premier League season so far by any of its constituent clubs.
It turned out that the portent for what would happen to Manchester United this afternoon came with the arrival of the team-sheets and the news that Robin Van Persie was injured and would be taking no part in this match. A blow this obviously was, but to reduce Manchester United, a club with ambitions of becoming the champions of Europe, to being a one-man operation would be to understate the importance of the performance of his team-mates. From the very start of the match, Manchester City pressed, and pressed, and pressed, forcing the visiting defence back to the edge of its own penalty and unable to break out of the tactical straitjacket into which it had been skilfully placed. When the first goal, a delightful hook from an unlikely position after sixteen minutes had been played, was scored by Sergio Aguero, any remaining pretence of equality between the two sides on the day vanished into thin air.
For the remainder of the first half, when they did break out of defence, Manchester United’s largely ineffectual attacking options found themselves running head on into a brick wall built in the shapes of Yaya Toure and Vincent Kompany, whilst City threatened with every break, moving intelligently, passing smoothly, humming like a perfectly-tuned engine. That match ended as a contest over the course of six minutes either side of half-time. In stoppage time at the end of the first half, Yaya Toure stuck a leg out and diverted the ball over the line after Rio Ferdinand had evidently decided that Kompany didn’t really warrant being marked at a corner kick. If United’s will had been sapped by the overrunning that they had been subjected to throughout the first half, to concede again on the cusp of half-time proved to be the point at which an uphill battle became a lost cause.
In the opening five minutes of the second half, the game passed from being merely over as a contest to being something approaching an abject humiliation for United. Two goals in four minutes, from Sergio Aguero and Samir Nasri, turned this torrent into a rout, and from there on City seemed happy to sit back and absorb whatever limited resources their visitors could throw at them. The introduction of Tom Cleverley shortly after the fourth City goal gave United a little more cohesion and bite, but even with his introduction – and it’s difficult not to raise an eyebrow at the very concept of the phrase, “Here’s Tom Cleverley! He’ll save the day!” – City were comfortable and unruffled. Potential championship material, for sure. With four minutes to play, Wayne Rooney – who had spent much of the rest of the afternoon very much in “Angry Wayne Rooney” mode – slipped a delightful free-kick beyond the flailing limbs of Joe Hart to being a little respectability back to the scoreline, if nothing else, for Manchester United.
For that club, this afternoon’s was the result of the culmination of a summer that has not gone according to plan. The club’s failure to land the transfer targets that it is now required to bring in to maintain those challenges for the Premier League and the Champions League was shown up in the starkest possible terms this afternoon. Outplayed by their cross-city rivals, David Moyes must now return to the drawing board, but the season is still in its earliest days and upcoming matches against West Bromwich Albion, Sunderland, Southampton, Stoke City and Fulham between now and the start of November offer an opportunity for his team to regain a little of the poise that it so amply demonstrated last season. Patience, however, is not a common currency these days, and failure at a club the size of Manchester United is unlikely to be tolerated in the ways in which it often was in the past.
The final word on this afternoon’s match, however, must go to Manchester City. The arrival of Manuel Pellegrini at the club at the start of this summer was greeted with a degree of skepticism by some, but this afternoon his team demonstrated that it retains the capacity to challenge at the very top of end of club football. Aggressive yet controlled, pressing without ever losing its shape and composed in front of goal, the breaking sounds that have come from Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge of late will have been music to the ears of their supporters, but what happens elsewhere is, of course, hardly their concern. They can take enormous satisfaction from a job extremely well done. This season might just see a blue moon rise over English football once again.
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