Once again, Manchester United went behind. But, unlike against Bournemouth and Juventus in their last two outings, they could not repeat the dose by rescuing all three points in the first Manchester derby of the season.
Their thoroughly-deserved 3-1 defeat to Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium was simply a confirmation of the widely-held opinion that United have been riding their luck for far too long and they cannot keep expecting to get away with conceding the initiative week after week, game after game.
The 2-1 win at Juventus on Wednesday had been the ultimate smash-and-grab rescue job but it was always going to take a more rounded array of qualities to pull off the same kind of result against Pep Guardiola’s side. And, once they had fallen behind to David Silva’s 12th-minute goal having barely touched the ball to that point, there appeared to be only one outcome.
Jose Mourinho has made a career of making his teams miserly and obdurate, but this season so far has been an exaggeration of the narrative even for him. Sunday was the ninth occasion on which United have handed the first goal to their opponents in 17 matches this season. Their tendency to start slowly and give impetus to the opposition has been the consistent thread of 2018-19 to date.
To set a team up in such a cagey manner presupposes that the players tasked with holding their shape for 90 minutes and staying alert are able to do so almost without fail. It takes nine-out-of-10 performances all across the field.
But unfortunately for Mourinho the squad at his disposal simply doesn’t have the aptitude to maintain such concentration throughout. These are players who have largely been recruited because they offer something more than the kind of resoluteness which is expected at Cardiff City and Huddersfield Town.
And, while they all have the wherewithal to employ a structured, defensive approach on the odd occasion, expecting them to remain switched on for the entirety of consecutive outings is a huge ask. Doing it on Wednesday was one thing, but backing it up against a team of City’s calibre was always going to be a far different prospect.
It was only after Sergio Aguero had punished Jesse Lingard’s weak concession of possession by exchanging passes with Riyad Mahrez and driving home a second that United broke out of their shackles and reminded their fans that they had attacking qualities to display.
The returning Romelu Lukaku was thrown on to replace Lingard and immediately burst on to a through-ball before drawing a foul from Ederson. Anthony Martial slotted home from the spot and City suddenly looked far more vulnerable than they ever had when United had insisted on practicing a training drill.
City would eventually wrap up their win when Nemanja Matic stood still and allowed Ilkay Gundogan to take a touch before firing past David de Gea from Bernardo Silva’s centre. It was a piece of defending which looked horrendous, but in the context of a mentally-fatigued midfielder who had been asked to play a negative, spoiler role almost throughout it was almost understandable.
There is constant talk surrounding Manchester United and what various additions might be needed at Old Trafford, but what is ultimately desired by United fans is a more positive attitude. The current approach is simply not sustainable, even before taking into account how un-Manchester United it is.
Mourinho’s United go into the final international break of 2018 in eighth position. That is not just a fair reflection of their performances but also an accurate judgement on their ambition right now. If you play like second-class citizens, you generally come out looking that way.