The Art of Rationalization, Or Reasons To Be Cheerful

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 23: A Manchester United fan gestures 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)

Yeah, but it didn't really matter, because there was this, and there was this, and no, I'm not crying, I've just got something in my eye, and this too, and could I have a glass of water?

Almost any defeat - however momentous, however savagely distressing - can be rationalised into something more palatable. Something you can live with. Ah, but this, and that, not to mention the other, and anyway have you considered (a), (b), and (c)? Exactly. Give a football fan long enough, and almost any defeat can be reduced, the pain boiled away through careful selection of statistics, context, perspective and sheer force of will.

Now, I don't know if you noticed, but there was a Manchester derby at the weekend, and it went very well for some people and not so well for others. But wait! Do not despair, O United fan! It wasn't as bad as it seemed. Because of reasons.

A reason. The red card

This is the most obvious, and probably also the most important; the move from match to mis-match. The stats tell the story. During the 46 minutes (plus first-half stoppage time) of 11 vs. 11, City had seven shots to United's four. Two of United's were on target, while Balotelli's goal was City's only accurate attempt. Chances aside, United were slightly edging the balance of play, having attempted to 306 passes to City's 233.

Once Evans had gone, however, the game opened up as first City sealed the game, then United impotently raged back at them, then City swatted them down. As you'd expect, City dominated the play (attempting 262 passes to United's 183) and created plenty of chances (15 attempts, six on target, of which five went in), but it's interesting to note that United also created more after Evans had been dismissed (seven shots, two on target, including Fletcher's goal). In short, there were twice as many shots after the red card as there were before; perhaps not unsurprising, but certainly illustrative.

Rather like United's 8-2 crunching of Arsenal, this was a result that was misleading thanks to its composition. Just as Arsenal will generally have more first-team players in their team than when they collapsed, so United will normally have one more player. This is not to say United would have won with eleven; they were losing, after all. But while the victory may not have required the extra man, the margin almost certainly did.

Another reason. The state of the squads

From a United perspective, the shellacking revealed nothing new about the state of the team. Before the game, we knew that United lacked: (a) an established central midfielder capable of moving the ball both intelligently and imaginatively (back in your box, Carrick fan, it's been a good long while); (b) a source of backbone, spine, gumption, heart, garra, moral courage, or whatever; (c) a functioning Patrice Evra; (d) a settled defence. Afterwards, we know that ... well, much the same. This wasn't so much a revelation as a bloodily emphatic confirmation. (It might presage a period of Glazernomics-inspired subjugation beneath the clumping, petrodollar fuelled golem from across the road, yes, but this is an exercise in denial, not despair.)

It wasn't really that revelatory from a City perspective either. David Silva's genius, Sergio Agüero's slickness, Mario Balotelli's talent, James Milner's tidiness, Micah Richards' lung capacity, Gareth Barry's continued theft of a living; these were the tools that dismantled United, and we knew all about them too. Their first-half patience was admirable and their second-half execution clinical, but given the rabble that was United's defence after Fletcher nicked his goal it would have been practically a dereliction of duty not to plunder with a couple more. Again: confirmation, not revelation.

A final reason. The larger picture

That you don't win titles in August/September/October is a truism, but that doesn't mean you get to take it off. City have dropped only two points from their first nine games: the second-best possible start, matched (in, God help us all, the Premier League era) only by Arsenal in 04/05 and 07/08, and bettered only by Chelsea's nine-wins-from-nine in 05/06. Their lead is a decent five points, again bettered only by José Mourinho's ridiculous second season Chelsea, who led after nine games by a remarkable 8 points. (From Charlton, weirdly.)

But. United fans will take heart from their haul of 20, which is equal to or better than their start to three of the last five seasons, and includes 10 from a possible 15 against the other five members of last season's top six. And besides, the only other two teams to have had five-point leads at this stage of a Premier League season - Chelsea last season, Arsenal in 04/05 - both ended up in second, 9 and 12 points back respectively. Five points is healthy, but it's edible.

So there we go: it wasn't a proper contest, it wasn't really a surprise, and it doesn't really matter anyway. Feel better, O Abstract United Fan? No, I didn't think so.

Some of these points are comforting in themselves, others manufacture solace by diffusing the pain into more general places. None of them change the fact that United were absolutely slaughtered in a profoundly resonant and - for those not among the 333 million, or whatever number David Gill's plucked from the air today - utterly hilarious way. But if it weren't for rationalisation like this, not a single Manchester United fan would have got out of bed this morning (and, drum roll, the entire economy of Surrey and Thailand might have ground to a halt. Ba-tish!) It's the same for any fan of any team: you get destroyed, then you find a way to get on with it.

It's obvious that the meaning of this game will only become apparent once the larger context has been resolved. If City win their first title since Thomas-a-Becket was in short trousers, then it will have been the marker laid down, the notice served, the old order shaken, the arrival announced, and any other cliché you like. (Something tedious about a perch, probably.) If United retain the big shiny silver one, then the result will go down in history either as a blip or as "the moment that galvanised Ferguson's men/meant Jonny Evans was finally, mercifully, put out to pasture/saw Phil Jones take the armband".

(And if Chelsea win the league, then it'll turn out we were all paying attention to the wrong game and André Villas-Boas's brave post-QPR decision to play David Luiz up front went excellently. "I was always a massive Paul Warhurst fan," he later explained.)

Games-in-themselves only go so far, so says the loser. She cites precedent - yes, City were fantastic, but then Newcastle were fantastic when they put five past United in 1996, and much good it did them; not even Philippe Albert's moustache could help them over the line - she points to statistics and the calendar. And she's right. But being right doesn't make it okay. Because while the internal wrinkles and the wider season may give the games meaning on reflection, none of that's important when the ball crosses the line once, then again, then again and again and Again and AGAIN, each goal thudding into the solar plexus, while the country convulses in laughter.

Being rational can only ever take you to the edge of why it all matters. Ultimately there can only be one tiny sliver of consolation for any United fan that spent Monday keeping their head down in the office. At least it wasn't Liverpool.

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