Manchester City prescribed their local rivals a sharp dose of the current reality with a 3-0 victory at Old Trafford every bit as comprehensive as the gap between the two sides in the Premier League table. The win moves City up to second place and keeps them on course to take possession of a championship for which Manchester United have mounted the most meager of defenses.
In a frantic opening at Old Trafford, the champions were utterly devoid of any purpose or structure and it took their once lowly neighbors just 42 seconds to capitalize. After Samir Nasri struck the post, Edin Dzeko finished to become the first player to score against United inside the first minute in the history of the Premier League. It was just the latest unwanted streak to be broken in United’s torrid campaign of which the most damming may be that they have now lost 10 games for the first time in the Premier League era.
It could have been even worse for David Moyes's side, with Marouane Fellaini somehow escaping a red card for a blatant elbow into the face of Pablo Zabaleta. While the hosts were able to enjoy some long spells of possession later in the half, there was never a sense that they had the imagination to break City down once the visitors decided the game was far too open for their liking.
City were solid rather than spectacular following their rampant opening, but always looked on a different level when going forward. David Silva was again imperious and some of the understanding involved from City’s players in creating umpteen passing triangles was something with which the home fans doubtless viewed with a sense of mournful reminiscence. United’s static defending from a corner early in the second half allowed Dzeko to get a second that ended any sign of resistance. Yaya Toure’s 90th minute strike as opposition defenders stood on watching was a fitting finale.
For United, the match was a perfect encapsulation of Moyes’s disastrous reign. Despite the positive performance at west Ham, which followed the triumphant win over Olympiakos, Moyes altered his system with Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck coming in for Shinji Kagawa and Ashley Young. It is hard to decipher quite what Moyes’s great vision, which he so regularly references, is for the team, and it was equally difficult to understand exactly what his plan was on this day. Certainly there was an idea to strengthen to the midfield, but the team was utterly shambolic in the opening stages. City, perhaps sensing that there would be early apprehension from their opponents under their pragmatic coach came charging out of the blocks.
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Their opening goal could have come even earlier with only a desperate saving challenge from Rafael denying Silva after one of the midfielder’s majestic kisses of the ball got him through on goal. It was to be the most temporary of reprieves. With Rafael still recovering from his intervention, and no United player having the awareness to cover, Fernandinho picked out Samir Nasri in the box. The Frenchman’s low shot struck the foot of the near post but bounced perfectly into the path of the gambling Dzeko to finish from close range.
For another 25 minutes there continued to be no clear structure to the United team. Players were taking up positions without clear thought or reason, with Fellaini and Cleverley particularly culpable. Lining up either side of Michael Carrick in the midfield, the pair were running around aimlessly. If there were clear instructions from Moyes they did not transmit to the players. The chaotic display of Fellaini was summed up when he stuck his elbow into the face of Zabaleta despite having possession of the ball. How referee Michael Oliver produced only a yellow card was as equally hard to comprehend as Fellaini’s actions.
As well as the structural failings, there was also a startling sloppiness to United’s play throughout. A giveaway by Carrick allowed Silva in for a shot that Rio Ferdinand blocked, while a poor clearance from De Gea saw Toure find Silva in the box in a ridiculous amount of space before the Untied goalkeeper redeemed himself with a wonderful one-handed save from Dzeko’s shot on the stretch.
But while City were pouring forward and looking likely to score more goals, they were also leaving themselves open on the break. And it was ironically in the early chaotic spell when United looked as dangerous as they did all night. Thus City wisely adopted a more cautious approach, with Fernandinho and Toure holding their shape in midfield.
It meant United enjoying some extended spells of possession, but the idea that they were getting on top was mere illusion. The best they could muster in terms of efforts on the City goal were a tame Fellaini volley and a Juan Mata shot over the bar. Having switched to an extremely loose diamond shape before the break, Moyes made another change at half time, which he said afterward was due to injury, when Cleverley came off for Kagawa. Still, United failed to engineer a formula to get their creative players on the ball in key area or operate with any fluency.
City must also take much credit, however. At one stage of the season conceding goals aplenty, Manuel Pellegrini has now overseen five straight clean sheets in the Premier League. And the much-maligned Martin Demichelis deserves his share of the plaudits. While his lack of pace has been exposed on several occasions, his ability to come out of defense and pressure deep-lying forwards again paid dividends in enabling the veteran Argentine to keep Rooney quiet.
While City were not a vibrant attacking force, there was a sense of inevitability about the second goal. The static United defending at set-pieces, which was emblematic of their performance, had already nearly proved costly when Fernandinho headed over from inside the six-yard box. United were not to get so lucky minutes later. Ferdinand allowed Dzeko to easily run off him from Nasri’s near-post corner and the Bosnian volleyed expertly past De Gea.
In stark contrast to the Manchester United teams of the recent past, there was never any indication that the hosts had it in them to mount any semblance of a stirring recovery. And when James Milner’s cross deflected to Toure on the edge of the box in the final minute, with no United player even threatening to close him down, allowing the Ivorian to simply fire low into the corner, it gave the match a bookend that neatly recapitulated much of what had come before.