If there is good news for Manchester United on a bleak afternoon it is that their performance was good in parts. Admittedly those parts were few and far between and confined almost entirely to the first half, but that is still better than the derby at Old Trafford in November.
The use of Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba as central attacking players, to the extent it caused Manchester City problems, worked, at least before half-time. But the problem is that none of that much matters if you’re going to defend like the visitors did.
This was United doing what they have done since Ralf Rangnick took over, playing much better in one half than the other. But City won the half in which United played better 2-1, and the other 2-0 going on five. That they did not win far more convincingly was a result of the excellence of David de Gea and their own familiar shortcomings in front of goal.
Perhaps this was a short-term fix from the short-term manager. Perhaps had Cristiano Ronaldo been available, or Marcus Rashford not been in such rotten form, the plan would have been more orthodox. But as it was there were pleasing interactions between the wide pairing of Anthony Elanga and Jadon Sancho and Pogba and Fernandes, none more so than in the counter that brought the equaliser. Perhaps if you squinted very hard, there was the semblance of something that could lead to a brighter future for United.
Whether it’s worth squinting, though, is a different matter. Rangnick spoke last week of the need for continuity, but that is just what United do not have and will not have until it becomes clear of exactly what his consultancy role will consist. You can question the professionalism of players reluctant to learn a complicated new system for a man who may be gone in June, but not the logic. And there must also be a growing sense that it’s all futile with this defence.
The opening goal was a case in point. There seemed little immediate danger when Bernardo Silva picked up the ball on the left, but he exchanged passes with Jack Grealish and suddenly, as the ball was cut back, Kevin De Bruyne was steaming unchallenged into the centre of the box, with inevitable consequences. Perhaps that’s a matter of coaching, perhaps of individuals losing focus or self-belief, but either way it is undermining everything else.
Harry Maguire, it hardly needs saying, is not having a good time. A player who can look so commanding, particularly in the less demanding world of international football, has become a liability. It may not be fair, but when he is playing poorly, Maguire’s appearance counts against him because he looks so ungainly, wobbling into challenges with all the grace of an Easter Island figure being brought down from the quarry.
There was a moment in the first half when he won the ball off De Bruyne because he mistimed his challenge so badly that the Belgian couldn’t process what had happened and ran into his prone legs. The second City goal came as the ball bounced loose from De Gea’s save and dribbled between Maguire’s legs as he tried to turn. It was misfortune rather than anything else, but it looked awful. And the worse these things look, the more criticism Maguire draws and the more forlorn he appears. Of course, it was his knee off which the third goal deflected; the way things are going for him, he’ll probably get swallowed by a whale or squashed by a falling piano on the way home.
But the point is not to highlight that Maguire is out of form and fortune; it’s that he is perpetually left exposed by United, who have come to depend on him in a way that doesn’t seem particularly fair on anybody. It was rushing him back against Leicester, when he clearly wasn’t close to fully fit, that led to the 4-2 defeat that marked the beginning of the end of Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s reign.
Raphaël Varane was absent with Covid, but he has somehow been transformed from the graceful figure of Real Madrid into a scarecrow of a defender, lurching about unconvincingly as bits of straw fall out of his sleeves. Victor Lindelöf has never been especially poised, but he too has been infected by the general clumsiness: he charged by Phil Foden as he lifted the ball over him in the build-up to the second goal with all the misplaced conviction of Wile E Coyote racing off a cliff.
It doesn’t help that the holding midfielders offer only spasmodic protection or that the space behind the full-backs is so exploitable. Being a United centre-back must be an awful task at the moment. But as well as a failure of defensive organisation, there has been a failure of nerve and will. And without proper foundations, the future will never be built.