As Chris Smalling slid inaccurately towards James Milner, an act rightly described later by his manager as “stupid”, his mind, and those of the fans in red who were watching, must have been a frenzied tempest of confusion and regret. How Smalling must have flagellated mentally in the showers (steady) over his decision to firstly attempt to block Joe Hart’s drop-punt, one of the most inane and unproductive ways to earn a yellow card, and then secondly to leave his feet and scythe through Milner, with the City player nearer to the sideline than the goal. Manchester United’s first half, and their first 10 games more generally, were summed up perfectly by the sense of mournful, unhinged bewilderment that surrounded Smalling’s second yellow card. Losing 5-3 to Leicester. Beating QPR 4-0. More red cards than any other Premier League team so far this season. Finishing the Manchester derby with Valencia, Carrick, McNair and Shaw as their back four. This is pure, unadulterated calamity. This is like seeing a cow drift by during a tornado. This is like the theme from the Magic Roundabout, eternally repeated. To have spent so much and made so little progress is unforgivable.
Marcos Rojo will be unavailable for at least a week after he dislocated his shoulder attempting a reckless two-footed challenge on Martin Demichelis. This means that, with Smalling suspended and Jones still injured, for the second time this season Louis van Gaal must scramble to patch his slashed up defence. Like a man caught outside in the freezing cold, wearing only the upper section of an American football uniform, United are incredibly well protected up top, but beneath that they are naked, shrivelled and cowering, scrabbling to hide their indignity.
Staying with this analogy, Chris Smalling, even before his sending off, is not an adequate fig leaf. Neither, in truth, is Phil Jones. Marcos Rojo has looked only barely sufficient, and Jonny Evans, a long term absentee, was far from convincing before he was struck down by injury. Van Gaal’s team sit 10th in the table after 10 games. They haven’t yet won away from home this season. Their points total is less than the amount David Moyes had managed at this point last season, and van Gaal’s has been a much easier set of opening fixtures. All this after spending close to £250 million.
The awful thing is, is that congratulations are being handed out to United for how they finished the match, how they refused to collapse entirely after conceding, and how they kept the score to a relatively respectable 1-0. But then City blew a host of chances (or, looking at it another way, David de Gea was outstanding), particularly Jesus Navas’s. On top of that, you realise that City had three wholly legitimate penalty appeals bizarrely turned down by referee Michael Oliver. And then you must accommodate the fact that City’s best playmaker, David Silva, was out injured. Suddenly the 1-0 scoreline becomes an incredibly misleading summary of the nature of the contest, and the back-slapping being done by United resembles a round of applause for the violinists who played on the deck of the sinking Titanic; gosh chaps, that was very well done under the circumstances, but it’s hard to sing out “encore” with the prospect of a watery grave imminent.
It looks like the January transfer window, 2 months away, won’t come quickly enough. United have Arsenal and Southampton as their next two away fixtures, two teams with soaring attacking units, and United won’t have anything near to a complete defence to face either of them with. Alexis Sanchez, like Zorro’s rapier, will zip straight through United’s makeshift back line, and they’ll fall, scarred and seeping into the grass, as the Chilean snorts triumphantly. Additionally, Danny Welbeck will relish proving van Gaal a fool to have disposed of him so readily. Southampton’s Dusan Tadic and Graziano Pelle will also be eager to get to work against the United defenders, that’s assuming they are defenders who line up in front of de Gea, not midfielders like Carrick and Valencia. Bleak is the word that comes to mind, and enough critical damage may already have been inflicted upon United’s ambitions before the January window opens. A top four finish, on the showing so far, is a reward United hardly deserve.
“Where are these world class defenders?” a chirpy objector might ask. “It’s not like you can just buy anyone you want, even United have to pick from what’s available”. This is true, but then it’s also true that player recruitment and squad building shouldn’t be something done in the manner of a desperate, estranged father buying gas station gifts for his children on Christmas Eve either. Having known for so long that Vidic and Ferdinand were leaving, the one centre back they bought seemed like he’d never arrive, with Rojo’s transfer, for whatever reason, finally going through after an excruciating delay. And there were other options out there for United. Eliaquim Mangala, for all of his recent wobbliness, looks like he’ll turn out a strong, sound defender, and he was obviously available. So were Barcelona’s centre back imports, Jeremy Mathieu and Thomas Vermaelen. So was Medhi Benatia, the centre back signed by Bayern Munich. Any of these players are better options than Chris Smalling, surely. They all moved clubs, and United may have pursued all of them with dogged enthusiasm, only to be pipped at the post, though that seems unlikely.
It’s just so irresponsible. This should happen to smaller clubs, blessed with considerably less lustrous bank balances (indeed it did happen to West Ham United last season) not to a member of the European aristocracy, boasting to be the biggest club in the world. This season was supposed to exorcise the David Moyes-shaped demons that took up residence at Old Trafford last term, but already United made their worst start since the 1980s. They have not emerged out of the grisly, inky pit squinting into the daylight. If anything they’ve only dug deeper, and now the effort required to scale the slimy wall has grown.