MANCHESTER — It was the most commonly repeated critique of Manchester United. Here was a collection of individuals masquerading as a team. Tactical plans and adaptations to the opposition: those were for lesser sides. “This is Manchester United Football Club,” the old cliche goes.
And yet you could not accuse Ralf Rangnick of being insufficiently meticulous. Shorn of Cristiano Ronaldo and Edinson Cavani he came up with a way in which Manchester United might theoretically have thrived even without any center forwards in the team. It felt a lifetime ago by the final whistle but the high press and swift transitions of the first third of this game had seemed like an effective way for the visitors to ape the success of Tottenham against Manchester City.
There were fine margins to this game, at least early on. Had Anthony Elanga’s attempted lob out of his own half found a teammate then United would have been bearing down on goal with a numerical advantage. Jadon Sancho and Paul Pogba had already proven to be deadly in these fast break situations. Flip this contest to 2-1 United and who knows what might have been.
Instead the visitors revealed their soft underbelly and City pounced, albeit in the invigoratingly cumbersome fashion, like a lion pouncing on a gazelle but on ice, that they only seem to discover when their prey is there for the taking.
City might have inevitably moved through the gears as they eventually did in the second half, reaching a level few can reach, certainly not United. But did it have to be so tame?
Rangnick would say that yes, there was nothing his team could do but the fact that he was even being asked whether his side had the fight for the second half of a derby spoke volumes.
“I didn’t have the impression that they didn’t try but it’s difficult against a team like Man City when you’re 3-1 down against the best possession team in the planet,” said United’s interim manager. “I cannot blame anyone for not having tried or put effort in but it was difficult after the third goal.”
One of the great rivalries of English football was shorn of any edge for too much of this game, even before Riyad Mahrez netted City’s third. Adversity had come United’s way. The players had not risen to meet it, quite the opposite.
The rot began at the roots of this United side, where $230 million of defensive talent uniformly failed to take responsibility for keeping David de Gea safe in goal. Each of City’s four goals had that moment when you could sense the defenders spotting danger but taking the path of least resistance.
This is a defense that must lead the league in pointing. No team quite outperforms their expected observing danger but not acting on it metrics like United. Can’t somebody else do it, they seem to cry, despite this club having already thrown the sort of budget at their defense that even sanitation commissioner Homer Simpson would struggle to burn through.
As Bernardo Silva darts down the left Alex Telles’ arm is raised high, pointing out Kevin De Bruyne’s presence in space in the penalty area. Yes he needs to be conscious of Mahrez to his rear and of course Jadon Sancho could have charged back into the box to offer support. But Telles might earn some greater level of forgiveness if he did not leave it until much too late to actually do something, a dive in vain as City opened the scoring after just five minutes.
Similarly there was nothing Victor Lindelof could really do about Phil Foden’s balletic lob of the ball over his head but did he really need to stop and stare at the carnage that ensued in the penalty area? Twice he seemed to hesitate as though wondering whether, as a professional defender, it was up to him to defend the United goal. In the five seconds it took De Bruyne to eventually turn the ball home Lindelof could surely have made the ground up.
Perhaps he instead thought that Harry Maguire might do more to quell the danger. Instead the most expensive center back of all time got nowhere near Foden’s initial shot, somehow contrived to dummy the rebound before falling to the floor. All it needed was for him to thump it out for a corner.
Maguire’s flaws (and he has too many for the role he is thrust into) were cruelly exposed on Sunday in a game that offered him no canvass to show how effective he can be at progressing the ball up the field. United’s captain set the tone for a performance where these players gave in too easily, its defining moment being his sliding in on De Bruyne to earn a blatant yellow in midfield. He could not, it seemed, be tempted to try to shepherd his opponent to safety.
Meanwhile on the right flank Aaron Wan-Bissaka was going through his own personal trials. There is something cruel in a player, his teammates, an entire stadium realize he is the weak link and that the remainder of the 90 minutes will see his every defensive weakness probed remorselessly. He did not, could not, stand up to the task of keeping Bernardo Silva and Jack Grealish at bay.
Twice in a matter of four second half minutes Wan-Bissaka was bullied off the ball by Phil Foden and Bernardo Silva. Neither are the footballing sprites that they might be perceived as but if your identity as a player is based on being a robust, defense-first right back it is something of a problem if you are being bullied by a player who you have an eight kilogram weight advantage on.
By that time you could feel United’s belief in the plan ebbing away. Not once in the second half did they even take a shot on City’s goal. The fight had gone out of them. The concern for Rangnick might just be that what happened on the pitch was all too reflective of what happened off it. After all, Cavani had declared himself out of contention after three training sessions this week, still battling a groin issue.
“What does it help if I tell you it’s frustrating?” Rangnick asked. “It’s a fact. If players tell the medical department they cannot play I have to accept it.
“Edi trained in the last three days. He trained well but he still felt after those sessions that he’s not fit to play. As a manager I cannot force a player to play if he does not feel fit enough and well enough to play.”
Were this a one-off it could be easily be written off. At 35, Cavani probably knows his body better than most. He might be right. But when Jesse Lingard and Ronaldo have also taken fitness decisions into their own hands, when every defeat brings with it a tidal wave of dressing room leaks, it suggests a club where it is too easy to give up.
And so this grudge match ended not with a desperate last hurrah from United or another devastating City attack. Instead the Etihad just took the mick. First the oles as Guardiola’s men moved the ball around an opponent chasing shadows. Then the Poznan. Then the Toure chant. It was as if the home fans were having to come up with their own entertainment, so little were United compelling City to provide.
Whatever Rangnick might say, United’s intensity was not at the level required for a derby against England’s best team. City were certainly better, good enough to make you not want to fight anymore. “If the second half is not our best, I don’t know what we have to do,” said Guardiola. “I am so demanding but I know my limits and I know the players’ limits and second half in all terms, the commitment and everything, the display was everything.”
But this is the Manchester derby. No matter how good City are playing, United cannot just give up. “United gave up and in a derby, in any game, it’s unforgivable,” said former captain Roy Keane. “I can forgive mistakes, but not running back, not trying to tackle – there are players out there who shouldn’t play for Manchester United again.”
Certainly if United do aspire to reach the heights their crosstown rivals occupy then a great deal will have to change. The easy, albeit expensive, part might be giving Rangnick’s successor some better defenders to work with. The real challenge may just be convincing these players and their successors to keep fighting when the going gets tough.