After defeat to West Brom, Manchester United must decide whether that or their Man City Premier League triumph was the anomaly
That their team handed the Premier League title to bitter rivals from the blue half of the city won’t have angered Manchester United fans – it is that the promise of better times to come next season might prove to be just another false dawn.
The Premier League trophy began to slip away from United as early as October 14, following a gutless display that somehow yielded a point in a 0-0 draw at Anfield.
Traditionalists, however, were embarrassed. This was not the United way. As if mocking their rivals from the red half of town, Manchester City annihilated Stoke 7-2 hours later.
United got their comeuppance by losing two of their next three and they were eight points behind on November 5.
The title was gift-wrapped for City two days before Christmas when the Red Devils conceded a stoppage-time equaliser against 10-man Leicester to fall 13 points behind – the biggest points gap between first and second place at Christmas in English top-flight history.
City are worthy champions, having been head and shoulders above their neighbours as well as the rest of the league this season. That will be sufficient pain for United fans, but they can just about live with it.
However, meek surrender, at home, to a team doomed to relegation and Championship football next season, is something they can’t, and shouldn’t have to.
West Brom had won three games all season prior to Sunday. Their last victory was against Brighton in January. It was their sole triumph in 31 previous matches.
Victory at Old Trafford for the managerless Baggies – 12 points from safety prior to kick-off – moved them onto 24 points, the same tally Watford mustered in the 1999/2000 campaign, which is the fifth-worst total in Premier League history.
Immeasurably worse for United is that Sunday’s catastrophe was preceded by the performance of the season, a comeback that ranks among the greatest in the proud history of a club that epitomises ‘never say die’.
Roaring back from a 2-0 half-time deficit in the belly of the blue beast at the Etihad the previous Saturday to grab a precious 3-2 victory and deny Pep Guardiola’s side the title. That euphoria has been erased by the West Brom defeat.
United lurched from the spine-tingling, to the spineless. How could they have fallen so far in eight days?
Manager and players must take equal blame.
After a stirring performance that United fans had been waiting to see from Paul Pogba since he arrived back at the club he calls his home against City, the Frenchman looked like he was in an unfamiliar place and got hauled off shortly after half-time. It wasn’t a kneejerk reaction by Mourinho.
Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young, though disciplined and diligent defensively, which ranks high with the manager, are not natural full-backs.
When they received possession (Valencia, with 102 touches, had the joint most of any United player) they were ponderous, often choosing to stop, check and pass sideways rather than attack an opponent.
Young is hampered further by being a right-footed player, playing at left-back, so his unfamiliarity with the position means his tendency to overlap diminishes still further.
Against inferior opposition, why wasn’t Luke Shaw thrown in to at least give him some minutes and Young some rest bite, while offering United more natural width and penetration?
Alexis Sanchez wasn’t the worst player in a red shirt and tried to spark his side into life. That he couldn’t conjure anything against an abysmal West Brom side though begs the question why he consistently keeps Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial out of the starting line-up
And all of this with a looming FA Cup semi-final next weekend against Spurs – the team who have been arguably the second-best team to watch this season after City.
The tie that couldn’t come soon enough following the City win has suddenly filled United fans with fear and dread once again.
It will define whether the season, and possibly even Mourinho’s reign up to now, has been a successful one.
In a decent campaign that has been overshadowed by City’s brilliance, last week’s heroics were billed as a battle cry ahead of next season, a sign of brighter days ahead under the Portuguese, a defiant statement that United will not simply roll over and watch City dominate the domestic landscape for the foreseeable future.
Was that game or Sunday’s abject defeat the anomaly? We’ll learn more on Wednesday when United go to Bournemouth, and more so next Saturday at Wembley.
What a peculiar week it’s been in the Manchester football bubble. United’s victory was sandwiched between two convincing City defeats to Liverpool that Reds fans will dine out on for years to come.
But having had a taste of their own medicine in defeat to the Baggies, it’s now time for Mourinho and United to bounce back.