I could be all philosophical about this. In the cold light of day, we are (give or take) a third of the way through the season and two points off the leaders, having beaten both Liverpool and Chelsea away and Arsenal at home. All said though, after this performance, pragmatic philosophy is of no comfort. I was convinced before the season kicked off that Chelsea and Arsenal were all talk and the title race was between United and City. The results today haven’t changed anything; Chelsea won’t win the title and unless United do something dramatic in January, say bring Roy Keane out of retirement or something akin, then this title race is City’s to lose. Man City, who have been having a post title winning hangover that we ourselves experienced in 1999 are, for all that, still unbeaten in the league. United have lost three times this season and for two and half of those matches, United’s performances have been a disgrace.
I was optimistic before kick off. United were starting with two centre forwards on form and whilst Norwich hadn’t lost since their 4-1 defeat at Stamford Bridge five weeks ago, I thought United would be too strong for them. United started with plenty of possession but it was still 20 minutes before a decent chance came when Patrice Evra couldn’t make contact with a free header. The only other chance for United in the first half came on 38 minutes when Ryan Giggs found Robin Van Persie with a brilliant pass but Van Persie couldn’t connect.
The United players came out early for the second half but it quickly became apparent that whatever bollocking Sir Alex Ferguson delivered at half time had no effect whatsoever. Norwich happily let United thread balls around the periphery of the final third without actually playing a meaningful ball forward. Rafael was the only United player who went forward with any intent of menace. The United performance reminded me of tactics that may be deployed in a Euro away; Monaco in 1998 or Real Madrid in 2000 would be a good example, when they were almost settling for a 0-0. This was all well and bad until the 58th minute when Anthony Pilkington found himself yards clear of his nearest United player. Chris Smalling (marker may be too generous a description…) Pilkington headed in Javier Garrido’s cross past a desperately grasping and blameless United keeper, Anders Lindegaard. As for Chris Smalling, this was the third goal in succession that United have conceded which I believe he was culpable for. You may have expected a siege on the Norwich goal from here on in, relentless pressure and such forth. That didn’t happen. For my money, Norwich’s keeper, John Ruddy, was the man of the match. That’s not because of the way he handled the United attack – there wasn’t one to handle. He was just in full command of his box and gave a good solid keeper’s performance.
In the second minute of injury time, Ruddy made his best save of the game when Norwich centre half, Sebastien Bassong, did what no other player in a red shirt did this afternoon and that was nearly score for United. It was ironic and symbolic of a pathetically impotent performance that this was United’s best attempt on goal.
I can handle United losing. I can even handle seeing United lose to a staggeringly poor side as they did today, if it was just one of those days. I saw United lose enough matches in Ron Atkinson’s latter days and Ferguson’s early period to know that United don’t have a divine right to victory. What I find intolerable is the lack of urgency in a United team that is losing. At least when United lost 6-1 at home to City last season, they chased the match with an intent that was suicidal. Today there was no fight or apparent desire to pull the deficit back. I’m in the school of thought that Sir Matt Busby advocated to Tommy Docherty in 1974 when he said “If we have to go down, let’s go down with a bit of fight, a bit of style”.
I didn’t go to the match today. I tried to get a ticket but there was nothing doing and there was no way I was going down there on spec. I later found out from mates of mine at the game that there were plenty of tickets should I have wanted one. I’ve been to Norwich a few times before and it is a long, long way home at the best of times but to come home after a performance as toothless and spineless as that, my heart and respect goes out to those that went. The fans who went out there today will be lucky if they’re home before 2.30AM. Those United players out on the pitch today will probably be back at Ringway Airport before the pubs close tonight. They should hang their heads.