MANCHESTER – They are short of heroes at Manchester United these days so, while they wait for one to emerge, they sing for their manager.
It is either that or remind everyone constantly how many English league titles they have won but if there was ever a football club that needed to look forward — that needed to modernise — then it is this one.
So for now Ole Gunnar Solskjaer represents the future. As such, they sang for their manager at the start at Old Trafford last night, again in the middle and, briefly and more quietly, at the end.
This was a tough gig for United, a derby game that offered them far too much to lose, whatever the result. They played their part for a while and we can’t always say that. It seemed that pride had been pricked in losing at Goodison Park on Sunday after all. Here they were competitive and keen for the first half an hour at least. And then Manchester City beat them easily.
There have been too many low points for this great club in the last six years. This — playing a walk-on part in a Premier League title scrap between your two biggest rivals — must one day be viewed as the lowest.
United must learn from City as they lurch forwards into what they say will be a new structural future. They must learn from City’s recruitment processes and indeed from Liverpool’s.
Here, against a City team far from its best or most fluent, United found the gap too big once again. Since that day that Sir Alex Ferguson took his leave from the managerial office in 2013 by taking City’s league title off them, a chasm has developed and, four managers later, it is still growing.
In keeping with United’s recent tendency to look longingly at the past, Solskjaer (below) had taken his players to the club’s old training ground at The Cliff in the run up to the game. As it turned out, a good number of the old place’s most famous regulars were here last night.
Spread between the commentary positions and the directors’ box were Gary Neville, Roy Keane, Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister, Nicky Butt, Peter Schmeichel, Wes Brown and Bryan Robson. Needless to say, a combination of those players would have given this City team a run for their money in their day.
At the very least, they would have brought a certain application and effort to proceedings. Of all the sad things levelled at Solskjaer’s players after Sunday’s defeat at Everton, perhaps the most damning was the pretty uniform suggestion that some of them had not been trying.
Later on Sunday, after Liverpool had won at Cardiff, Neville had still not got United’s dismal showing out of his head. “I am just fuming,” he said to anyone who would listen. “It’s just nowhere near good enough.”
Keane, speaking on TV, said before kick-off last night that too many of the current crop are ‘bluffers’. He reserved particular scorn for Paul Pogba. “I don’t believe anything he says,” said the former United captain.
And so to Old Trafford. The storm that passed through the area two hours before kick-off seemed indicative of what we thought would follow, particularly given the pre-match exchange between Guardiola and Solskjaer regarding allegations of City’s “tactical fouls”.
Ferguson was heard on Monday expressing identical sentiments to those outlined by Solskjaer a day later. The two men are known to be close. Had Ferguson had a word in his former player’s ear about the subject?
If they were to have any chance at all against a team so technically and physically superior, United had to echo the strength of their manager’s assertions on the field. Too often against good teams in the post-Ferguson era, United have been passive and then — usually when too late — hopelessly reactive.
Here at least Solskjaer’s team were on the front foot and playing with purpose. For one night only United were relevant in a title race again, even if it was in a way they would not have expected or appreciated.
For much of the season, United have been in the shallows. Here they were front and centre and with a little to prove. For a while at least it seemed to drive them against a City team that looked a little clunky until they grew into the game towards the latter stages of the first half.
To quote one of Manchester’s famous sons, Morrissey, there was a rush and push about United’s early football and though much of it was rudimentary — a long out-ball to Marcus Rashford being a favoured tactic — they troubled City on occasion.
There were some City fouls, too, as it happened. Vincent Kompany, looking skittish, was booked for a block on Rashford while young left back Oleksandr Zinchenko was cautioned for two offences in succession.
Solskjaer had named a brave team. Five changes from Sunday. He clearly needed his players to follow and, helped by the best derby atmosphere for a while, they did. All the while, though, existed the nagging suspicion that City would, ultimately, have too much for them.
And when they came the acts of the execution were simple and swift. Bernardo Silva’s goal was perfectly placed, Leroy Sane’s relied on power. Both could have seen saved by David de Gea.
There was to be no favour from United for Liverpool. Not because they didn’t want to win. But because they simply couldn’t.@Ian_Ladyman_DM