Just as the balance of power in Manchester has swung since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s playing days, so the vocabulary feels increasingly outdated. Old Trafford was supposed to be Solskjaer’s Theatre of Dreams.
With nine triumphs there in little over 10 years, it has become Manchester City’s playground. For Solskjaer, who illuminated Old Trafford and who romanticises it, this was another nightmare.
It could have been a scoreline to rival City’s 2011 6-1 thrashing just as, but for the heroics of David de Gea, United could easily have been 4-0 down at the break again, as they were against Liverpool. As it is, they have lost their last two home games by an aggregate score of 7-0.
Perhaps City let United off lightly, but the gulf in class represented another indictment of Solskjaer. He still possesses a fine record against Pep Guardiola, but it was damning how he was outthought and outmanoeuvred.
The Norwegian was taunted by the visiting City fans, who mocked him even before the first goal. Their confidence was not misplaced. Their side showed the class, chemistry and coaching Manchester United lacked. It was the inspired against the insipid, energy and excellence versus embarrassment. “We had the game of our lives,” said Phil Foden.
United didn’t. “We were not at our level and standards need to be raised,” said a shellshocked Solskjaer. “We need to be on the front foot more. I can’t look at myself and say this is how I want Manchester United to play. It was a big step backwards.” His last six games have only yielded four points. “We have had a difficult spell,” said Solskjaer, and that is putting it mildly.
For City, beaten by Crystal Palace last week, it was a return to form. “Huge credit and admiration again, my pride to these players,” said Guardiola. A superb team display featured terrific individual performances: from Kevin de Bruyne and Rodri and Ilkay Gundogan but, above all, from two Portuguese players who outshone Cristiano Ronaldo.
Bernardo Silva can be an Old Trafford specialist; he scored on enemy territory for the third time in four seasons, capping a hugely influential afternoon. Joao Cancelo has made five goals in City’s last two games from full-back. He is a creator disguised as a defender and United’s system ensured he was invariably unmarked.
Solskjaer’s half-time switch to a back four was an admission his gameplan failed. Guardiola baffled United by fielding two false nines, leaving their three centre-backs with no one mark. United were undone by elusive movement from a team with possession and ambition.
“We thought you had to put the ball in the fridge,” said Guardiola, explaining how United were starved of it. They lacked a plan to regain the ball or retain it. “We still don’t trust ourselves with the ball,” lamented Solskjaer. And, once again, United were architects of their own downfall, symbolised by Eric Bailly’s own goal.
The sliding defender only succeeded in diverting Cancelo’s cross past the helpless De Gea. A rout beckoned during a seven-minute spell where, after Luke Shaw made a goal-saving block from De Bruyne’s shot, De Gea made five outstanding saves.
It was a defiant damage-limitation exercise. If the first of his stops, when Gabriel Jesus swivelled to unleash a fierce shot, was arguably the best, he twice denied the catalytic Cancelo, thwarted De Bruyne and spared Victor Lindelof the ignominy of an own goal.
The cruel element for De Gea was that he was partly culpable for City’s second. Cancelo curled in another cross, Silva emerged unchecked at the back post and shot from an acute angle. “That shouldn’t happen,” bemoaned Solskjaer.
United had a solitary attempt on target, at 1-0, when Ronaldo connected sweetly with a volley that Ederson parried; a stumbling Mason Greenwood put the rebound wide. Phil Foden and John Stones could have scored a third but, Guardiola reflected: “Everything was comfortable.” Not for United.