MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 23: A Manchester United fans looks dejected at the end of the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Manchester City at Old Trafford on October 23, 2011 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Was Sunday's humiliation at the hands of Manchester City the dawn of a terrifying new era for United?
"Oh god, it wasn't a dream."
Rarely will so many individuals have shared exactly the same waking thought, but if Twitter is anything to go by, these would appear to be the words ringing through almost every Manchester United supporter upon arising this morning. No doubt Sir Alex Ferguson will be among them, with a few bad dreams of his own. We can only speculate as to whether Ferguson suffers from That Recurring Dream Where You Turn Up To Work Naked, but if he does, then yesterday's experience cannot have been far from replicating it.
The oft-repeated refrain from United will be that it was ‘just one game', but even the most resilient football fan will know that this is a fallacy - 'just one game' does not fill the soul of half of a city with dread at the thought of social contact. ‘Just one game' does not get repeatedly referenced and replayed for decades as this one will. This was much, much more, and crucialy, ‘just one game' does not reveal quite so much as yesterday's humiliation.
The truth is, yesterday had been an inevitability ever since the Glazer and Mansour dynasties rose to power in Manchester. United, stripped bare, revealed just how weak their grasp on power is. This is a strange team, merely above average on a player-by-player basis, one that does not play fantastic football or gel together particularly well, one whose most dangerous players are afflicted with terrible inconsistency, but also one that is optimised and fine-tuned to perfection when it comes to dealing with the rigours of league football over the course of the entire season.
For the first time, it is difficult to pin down United's qualities. Mental strength and resilience? Mentally strong teams do not surrender at 2-0 down, or track back as lazily as United did. Width? Perhaps, but teams now know that if they can survive the bombardment of balls into the box then United have no other reliable means of creating chances. A solid defence? Not anymore, with no central defensive partnership getting a run of games and Evra's shocking loss of form. These three were the pillars on which United's post-Ronaldo team had been built on, and they have eroded away to nothing. Yet still, nobody doubts that United will be champions or very, very close in May.
Instead, United's power comes from the mastery of more arcane, mysterious arts. It would be no surprise if United were to pick up more points than City in the coming weeks, using the defeat to inspire them to either some exciting performances or some gritty 1-0 wins. Ferguson still maintains a curiously old-fashioned view of how to win the Premier League - even in the post-Mourinho age of English football, he still views it as a vague, nebulous affair - often speaking of points totals, of good runs, and home form. In contrast, Mancini, one imagines, appears to view every game as an individual, decontextualised clash through a cold, analytical light. City will, too, have their nightmares - deep down, even if they do not share Mancini's view of the game as an entirely isolated event, they will still harbour nightmares that their greatest-ever victory will not save them from ultimate defeat at the end of the season.
The problem for United is that they no longer appear to have their aura of invincibility around them. There may be something to be said in defence of players such as Anderson, Darren Fletcher, and Jonny Evans, but no team will look like the best in the world with them in the line-up. The best United can hope for is that yesterday will serve as a much-needed wake-up call to those in charge at Old Trafford, whoever that may be nowadays. They will be left with very little margin for error in the meat-and-potatoes games against mid-table opposition, and European success now looks a pipedream. There may be question marks over some of Ferguson's decisions - whilst Young looks to have been a good purchase, spending the money on a winger rather than a midfielder now looks like lunacy - but a club like United cannot run off the old knight's steam any longer. Without investment at Old Trafford, this was not an anomaly, an isolated incident, or ‘just one game' - it was, for Manchester United, a dark and terrible vision of the future.