That felt horrible.
Not the losing. We can take the losing. But it was the manner of defeat that hurt.
Away losses at Old Trafford are two a penny – and not just when you’re Norwich City – but the unedifying way City kowtowed to a United team that’s a million miles away from being a good one was painful.
Of course, United have better players than Norwich – they should have given the size of the respective budgets – and we’re not the first team to go to the “Theatre of Dreams” and end up on the receiving end of a nightmare, but to barely throw a punch when we’re supposed to be fighting for our lives was what made it so disheartening.
Bravery is something that figures large in Daniel Farke’s demands of his players, and they’ve scored highly in that regard over the last 18 months, but there was precious little in evidence yesterday when it was needed most. No lack of effort or determination – that’s different – but the mental resilience needed to make a fragile United sweat and toil was missing.
Instead, it was City doing the toiling and the chasing of shadows as they allowed Solkjaer’s men to dominate possession almost from the first whistle. And even this United team, given enough of the ball, will hurt you, especially in the form of Rashford and Martial. And they did.
One of the cornerstones of last season’s success, and indeed of Farkeball itself, is possession of the football; the ability to be able to retain and manoeuvre it even when under extreme pressure and to do so until an angle is found to break a press or defensive line.
That City would have less of the ball this season was a given and so the team’s shape and formation out of possession has been of equal importance, but still there’s an underlying need – probably an even greater need – to use to effectively and efficiently when we do have it.
The pressure exerted and the extra physicality of Premier League opposition clearly makes this harder to do, but passing the ball neatly and accurately is what we do and it underpins the whole Farkeball ethos. It’s our thing.
And when it doesn’t work, there are not too many other places to go.
What we certainly can’t afford to do is adopt what’s colloquially known as hot-potato-mode. but I give you minutes 28 to 40 of yesterday’s match; a finer example you’ll struggle to find. While it was an affliction that permeated the whole team, yesterday’s engine room – Messrs Tettey and Vrancic – were both especially guilty of coughing up possession cheaply when it could least be afforded.
And I hesitate to use the term powder-puff, but there’s no better description of how United were able to physically impose themselves on City yesterday; only Grant Hanley appearing able to match his opponents in terms of sheer muscle. It’s been an issue all season and remains one.
We could analyse each goal forensically and see what could have been done better and differently to prevent each outcome, but when under as much relentless pressure as City were under yesterday, the mind becomes fuddled and the decision-making off-kilter.
We’ll leave the analysis to the analysts and for Monday’s Colney de-briefing, suffice to say there were avoidable elements to each goal, not least the otherwise imperious Tim Krul charging out to close down Brandon Williams when he’d been better off staying, but not before United had worked the opening far too easily.
The great escape we talked of over the festive period seems a long way off right now, and we look stricken, set adrift, and with little but pride to play for. Defeats to those we deem our relegation rivals have killed us and so we now head into games against the big six plus Leicester, needing points. There are no more ‘free hits’ – another factor that made yesterday’s defeat so damaging.
The debate around how we ended up here inevitably rumbles on and those whose weight is fully behind the self-funding project are already looking to next season, citing how well-equipped we’ll be both financially and in terms of player quality. And they have a point.
But, as was discussed on Twitter last night, the ‘we’ll come back stronger’ theorem is one that assumes we’ll come back. In the same way the throw-money-at-it route out of the Championship is far from guaranteed, so too is self-funding-mark-2.
It’s a league that throws up the unexpected at every turn – we’re living proof of that – so the assumption we’re well set for a Championship promotion challenge next season is riddled with risk.
We will, however, be a club that for a couple of seasons at least will be on a sound financial footing and for some that’s enough. Fair play. I get that. And we’ll have a club to support which has owners who care. I get that too.
I also accept we’ve had no breaks, had little luck, been shafted by VAR and it does indeed feel like the world is against us.
But, and I’m trying hard, it still feels like another opportunity that’s been wasted. Sorry.