The common suggestion that the mauling in Sunday's Manchester derby represents a sudden seismic shift in power between United and City is misleading. The humiliation of the defeat and ease of victory combine to ensure that many deem the 23rd of October either a tombstone for the fallen, or a monument to the beginning of the new eminent force in English football. That's the simplified, easy to digest over your cornflakes version. This defeat has been coming, when considering United's performances this season and in their recent games against City, who since 2008 have been creeping ever closer in terms of results and squad; a player for player comparison would now favour City over United.
But on such victories are seasons rarely decided, and that applies to both sides of the Manchester divide. Manchester United have been profligate in front of goal since they put 5 past a moribund Bolton in September, yet Sunday’s defeat was the first of the season. Sir Alex Ferguson’s side have been fortunate to not concede more regularly, with poor performances from the Norwich and Chelsea front lines helping to paper over the cracks. From United’s own perspective this defensive fragility has been linked to bedding in a new goalkeeper, but is now more clearly attributed to a defence that has been racked by injury and inconsistent team selection, as well as a midfield that has, for a number of seasons, lacked the quality befitting the rest of the team. Ever the great rotator, Ferguson has rarely selected a settled back four and the lack of a solid defensive platform has hindered United’s attacking impetus. Surely the hallmark of United teams of recent times has been a back 5 that picks itself, barring injuries. Not so this season, with Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra continuing their joint malaise that ensured City ran riot down United’s left flank on Sunday.
And what of the midfield? Michael Carrick has been consistently passed over this season, seemingly due to an inauspicious start in the Community shield. Yet United's record with Carrick since he joined the club has been exemplary. He is prone to mistakes and lacks ambition with his passing, but without his calmness in possession and ability to slow down opposition attacks, which allows United’s full backs time to regroup, they have conceded 102 shots this season. Were his exclusion the result of a consistently exemplary midfield performer then it could be understood. However, that Anderson's shooting remains as ineffective today as it did when he arrived at the club four years ago is testament to his laziness and lack of desire to improve. Where Jonny Evans has earmarked this as his final season to impress, that is even more true of Anderson, given the number of opportunities he has had to secure a regular starting position. Tom Cleverley is an exciting prospect but the weight of expectation alone is symptomatic of the failure to find a solution to a glaring hole in United's first 11.
These are issues that must be addressed, and by the nature of Ferguson’s regime the manner of this resolution will be both brutal and precise. Yet it was a matter of weeks ago that United were being salivated over as a side reinvigorated with an injection of youth and attacking purpose. The level established by the youngsters promoted to the first team was impossible to maintain, and that it fell away in such dramatic fashion has left them brutally exposed to the critics who leer like vulture as they happily decry United’s impending doom.
Sir Alex Ferguson has been here many times before, facing down a new challenger to his clubs supremacy, always confronted with the same refrain that this time, somehow, it's different. And perhaps it is, but not in the way that Manchester City and Roberto Mancini would have us believe. Results and performances this season have been impressive, but Mancini has already proved that he cannot keep the group satisfied, with Tevez, Dzeko and Johnson all showing dissent. Mancini’s managerial career, both at Inter and City, is littered with proof positive that he lacks the man management skills for the top level. Both at Inter, where he fell out with Recoba and Figo, and at City where he has been unable to work with Robinho, Adebayor and Bellamy. Sir Alex Ferguson once remarked that given the choice between a player with ability and one with character, he would take the latter every time. City's squad certainly has characters, but again not in the way Mancini would like. Whilst the going is good City have a squad that is pulling in the same direction, any discontent quashed by a glance at the league table. But as results turn, and as the blip that has blighted every Premier League winning team besides Arsenal in 2004 is experienced, then the test will come. That Sir Alex Ferguson’s side find themselves cast as challengers and underdogs means that the league is still United's to lose.
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