Saturday, November 17, 2012
Comeback magic fails United
On Saturday, it wasn't so much a case of Manchester United rarely running out of time. It was that, even more remarkably, they ran out of ideas.
As admirable as a superbly-drilled Norwich were in nullifying this season's top scorers, the fact United couldn't pull off their most magnificent and memorable magic trick was ultimately down to a lack of magic in the side as a whole. This was an oddly flat performance from a team that had previously been plundering goals so freely.
Sir Alex Ferguson was philosophical afterwards - at least outside the dressing room.
"We had a lot of possession and one or two half-chances but no great chances and it wasn't our night," he said.
For the first time in a fair few weeks, though, it raises questions as to whether this will end up being United's season. On one level, this third defeat in 12 can be put down to nothing more than a blip. Not only was Wayne Rooney missing but so was Robin van Persie's usual cutting edge. Had the forward taken either of the opportunities that fell on his right foot in the minutes before and after half-time, then we might be talking about a typical United away performance.
That he didn't, though, again brings up questions about the balance of the side, especially in midfield.
Ryan Giggs has been a United legend for the past 21 years but that he has been involved in three of the club's four defeats this season says much more about the present. He characterised a general sloppiness to United's play, a lack of cohesion and therefore convincing possession that also ensured even more pressure was piled on an already fragile defence.
By the end, Anthony Pilkington had swept home the winner with the force that was generally missing from Ferguson's side. Without Rooney, they lacked that essential battle rage that has driven so many recent attacking displays as well as providing the fire necessary for all those late sieges.
Throughout this admittedly thrilling campaign for the club so far, there has been a sense the scintillating attacking play is still only papering over cracks; that Ferguson didn't address some of the team's most important issues in the summer.
To be fair, it should not be overlooked that the home side gave them plenty more here. "Credit to Norwich," Ferguson added. "They played fantastically well. Their goalkeeper had a good night too."
An element of that statement might have been for the United manager to save face though. Because, as excellent as John Ruddy was in dealing with the chances Ferguson's side created, there weren't actually too many of them. In the dying moments, all he really had to deal with was Danny Welbeck's header, and he did so superbly. Again, the fire and energy that characterised so many late sieges was missing.
Nothing, however, was missing from the Norwich performance.
"What pleased me most was that, over 90 minutes, we deserved what we got," Hughton said. "I thought it was such a resilient performance. We reduced them to minimal chances. They got a lot of balls into the box but we defended well as a unit and, with a bit more composure, we could have sealed it earlier.
"It's all about three points. It's a great feeling today because it's Manchester United. After the first few games of the season where we had a few good performances but not results. It's vital we pick up points."
They certainly did that on Saturday. Indeed, Norwich are a far cry from the team that conceded five to Fulham on the opening day of the season. Not only has Hughton admirably fortified their centre with a new defence, he has made them a real threat out wide.
Throughout the first half, as Anthony Pilkington flashed wide and Chris Smalling was forced to touch away a cross all too close to his own goal, United were forewarned that was where any big threat would come.
When it eventually arrived, though, they couldn't cope with it. Javier Garrido crossed for Pilkington to excellently head home.
"Anthony was excellent today," Hughton said. "Both ways. He had to be, especially with Valencia on that side. It was an excellent goal. I don't think the goalkeeper could do anything about it. It's nice to see him scoring."
United, however, never really looked like doing the same. Carrick kept things ticking along but never drove them forward; Ashley Young saw plenty of the ball but not much of Norwich's goal; Javier Hernandez started but never even got the chance to try and finish. On an extremely rare occasion, then, Van Persie couldn't manage what he was effectively signed to do: win these games.
Instead, Norwich got what may be their biggest scalp of the season. "I think it doesn't come any bigger than Manchester United coming here," Hughton said. "They've shown time after time, 1-0 down doesn't make much difference to them."
It did on Saturday, though, and ultimately made a difference to the table too. Because, in the end, there was at least one comeback involving the Manchester clubs: as a result of Norwich's win and City's own victory over Aston Villa, the champions are back on top.
Ferguson, it seems, is going to have to come up with another trick in order to topple them.