Norwich City 1 Manchester United 0
At the height of Manchester United’s most memorable season under Alex Ferguson, assistant manager Steve McClaren coined a phrase that would come to define an era: “I don’t think this team ever loses, it just runs out of time.”
In that incredible 1998-99 campaign, the side managed a remarkable 15 comebacks in 59 games.
As the current team come close to that record, similar phrases have been used while there has been growing talk about replicating the drama of that treble season, if maybe not the stunning trophy haul. Had they recovered to win against Norwich on Saturday, for example, it would have been their sixth such comeback in 12 league games, complemented by three in four in Europe.
There has always been the sense with this side, though, that coughing up leads was going to eventually cost them. A well-drilled Norwich were deserving winners, inflicting what is already United’s third defeat in the league — the same number as the entirety of the 1998-99 Premier League. Worse for Ferguson, if this game failed to see any of the classic United characteristics like rousing sieges, late goals and compelling comebacks, it did feature a more recent trend: problems in midfield and team shape.
At first glance, of course, it is difficult not to look past the opposite ends of the team. A porous defence too easily caught out by Anthony Pilkington’s goal; a forward line that previously averaged three goals a match fire a blank for a second time this season, with Robin van Persie guilty of being world class in every department except use of his right foot.
One of United’s real problems, though, is what is pinning all that together. Because, whereas the treble team had a clear sense of attacking structure and assurance to the point such deficits and consequent comebacks were someway inevitable, there is still the feeling that Ferguson is only papering over the cracks with his current side with the likes of van Persie. On Saturday, for once, the forward couldn’t do so. No-one else in a United team short of Wayne Rooney and Shinji Kagawa looked like doing so either.
Although football has moved on from the 1998-99 days of set midfield fours, the absence of a clear shape or even preferred combination in the current United team is abnormal. They don’t even seem to have a ‘best midfield’, as the otherwise impressive Rooney experiment was on hold.
It revealed a lot that, when Chris Hughton was asked about the performance of John Ruddy in goal, he had to admit the goalkeeper didn’t have much to do beyond a late save from Danny Welbeck.
“When you look at the stats, they would have had more of the ball than us, more shots than us and more crosses than us. But, if we’re looking at what you might regard as clear-cut chances that Manchester United always carve out, we were fortunate they didn’t have those.”
It was down to more than luck though. Norwich are a far cry from the team that conceded five on the opening day to Fulham. Hughton has fortified the centre while creating threat on the wings, as United found and Pilkington enjoyed.
For the first time in a while, Norwich also raised questions as to whether United can ultimately complete the biggest comeback of all this season: definitively overhauling a Manchester City team back on top.
NORWICH: Ruddy; Whittaker, Bassong, Turner, Garrido; Tettey, Johnson; Snodgrass (Bennett 90), Hoolahan (Howson 83), Pilkington; Holt (Morison 83).
MAN UTD: Lindegaard; Rafael, Smalling, Ferdinand (Anderson 83), Evra; Valencia (Scholes 69), Carrick, Giggs, Young; van Persie, Hernandez (Welbeck 69).
Referee: A Taylor (Wythenshawe).
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