Ferguson forced to concede that Norwich deserved their victory
It spoke volumes for how poor Manchester United were that Alex Ferguson did not seek to blame the officials, question why there was not more stoppage time or criticise Norwich’s tactics. All he could do was hold his hands up and admit that Norwich, full of energy, desire and a crucial dash of quality, deserved a victory that stretched their unbeaten run to six matches.
To suggest anything else would not only have been an insult to Chris Hughton’s side, but would also have ignored the fact that United are falling well below their usual impeccable standards with too much regularity.
More often than not, they get away with it. United have conceded the first goal in 11 of their 18 matches in all competitions this season and have come from behind to win eight of them. They never know when they are beaten – but that does not mean they cannot lose.
Saturday’s defeat was their third in the Premier League already and allowed Manchester City to leapfrog them into first place. Ominously the champions, who lead United by a point, remain unbeaten despite not hitting their stride.
Identifying United’s main weakness is not difficult. A central-midfield pairing of Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs screamed flimsy, and although they passed the ball prettily enough, there was rarely any incision or ability to deal with Norwich’s high-tempo pressing game. Paul Scholes would have struggled too, as he did against Aston Villa last weekend, although it made little sense not to start Anderson or Tom Cleverley. Ferguson’s failure to sign a top-class central midfielder has been a constant source of frustration at Old Trafford and United are suffering because of it. Robin van Persie, who wasted three decent chances, cannot rescue them every week.
The dependence on Van Persie’s goals was exposed by the absence of Wayne Rooney, who failed a fitness test on an ankle injury. Rooney has been below his best for a while, but United still missed his creativity and, if nothing else, his character.
For all his faults, Rooney is a leader, someone who does not hide when the going gets tough, and United are crying out for more of that. Instead they have Ashley Young, who hid from the first minute to the last. As well as Bradley Johnson, Republic of Ireland international Wes Hoolahan and Alex Tettey played, it is hard to imagine that Roy Keane would have stood for it.
Nor, for that matter, would Yaya Toure, the player who makes United tremble like no other. The Manchester derby is just under three weeks away and Toure must be licking his lips at the thought of feasting on this United midfield.
Norwich were full value for their win, which was secured when Anthony Pilkington sent a glancing fine header past Anders Lindegaard. Having conceded 17 goals in their first seven games under Hughton, they have tightened up of late and this was their fourth clean sheet in their last six outings.
Yet, as Hughton pointed out, not many teams have restricted United to so few clear chances and perhaps that is why, when it came to the final analysis, Ferguson recognised the value of dignity in defeat.