Friday 20 September 2019

Mark Critchley: 'Hard to argue with Keane but United can't keep looking back'

Talking point

Silva service: Luke Shaw can’t get close enough to Bernardo Silva to prevent Manchester City from taking the lead at Old Trafford last night. Photo: Action Images via Reuters
Silva service: Luke Shaw can’t get close enough to Bernardo Silva to prevent Manchester City from taking the lead at Old Trafford last night. Photo: Action Images via Reuters

Mark Critchley

Roy Keane was in one corner of Old Trafford, sitting, snarling. "That we're talking about them trying to finish fourth shows how the standards have dropped on and off the pitch," he said. And as if to prove his point, in another corner of the ground, the roof was leaking.

No player in Manchester United's storied history has an influence as powerful on the modern-day club as Keane. He is its yardstick and moral centre. The former player who the current crop are often unfavourably - and sometimes unfairly - judged against.

The 20th anniversary of his finest hour - that awe-inspiring self-sacrifice at the Stadio delle Alpi - came to pass on Sunday, unhappily coinciding with a United performance that was meek, inhibited and afraid. In other words, Turin's exact opposite.

Many questions have been asked of this group of players in the days since. Many more came in the hours leading up to this 178th Manchester derby. Their character and attitude was doubted, not least by their own manager.

It seemed as though those doubts would be answered. A little, at least. Whereas Sunday's performance was described as spineless and dispiriting, there was a backbone this time and, for 54 minutes, reason to believe too.

At Goodison Park, Marcus Rashford had ran down blind alleys. Paul Pogba had slumped his shoulders and held out his arms in sheer exasperation at team-mates failing to pass to him. Fred was as Fred has been since his arrival, bewildered by the mess surrounding him.

It was different for this visit from a Manchester City side at least for an hour. By the final whistle, the same questions were being asked.

"Today we didn't play like Manchester United. It's not right," said Rashford, who at 21, fronted up to the microphones for the post-mortem. "The bare minimum is to work hard and give all for the badge, the supporters, the club and yourself.

"It has been a tough road to get to where we are, to get there and not be putting up the same performances as we were in January is disappointing. We know what's been going wrong, it's mentality and willingness to run for your team.

"Forget the league and top four, you don't lose this game. It's that simple as a Manchester United fan. We never call each other out but we have to be real with each other. It's a matter of trying to improve each other.

"It's more getting back used to doing it on the pitch. They (the fans) know we can do it. Forget the top four and the Champions League. We have to get to the bottom of it and start playing like Manchester United for ourselves."

To be successful, that has to be the starting point but, as far as Keane was concerned after the match, the basics were missing, as well as the quality.

"On the first goal, United were not closing people down. We talk about the basics of football and United didn't turn up in the second half," added Keane, whose voice was hitting that familiar pitch of fury and indignation.

"What happened to stopping shots and closing down people? The balls were there to close down, but United stepped back and let them have shots. What are they doing? Get out there and block balls like your life depends on it. There is only one ball, go and close it down. Do the basics.

"If that was an example of players giving their all, Manchester United are in bigger trouble than I thought they were, and I think they are in big trouble.

"They are really low on confidence and they were up against a good team tonight. These young players need leaders around the club and United don't have enough of them at this moment. Who is going to lead them and who is going to get them through this tough period? There is no quick fix."

The problem for United is, even if the basics are applied, last night again proved the huge gulf in quality between the two sides.

To see City shift through the gears after a testing first half, when an up-for-it United tried to press and harry them into submission, was to see a club uninterested in what it has already achieved and instead chasing new histories, driven by an insatiable appetite for success.

For their cross-town rivals, it could not be more different. History weighs heavily on United, and more so than usual these past few months. The references to 1999 have been numerous. On the morning of this game, there was a training session at The Cliff.

Stability

And then there is the permanent appointment of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer itself - an unambiguous attempt to find meaning, stability and comfort in the glories and traditions of the past.

Solskjaer's appointment is a decision that is still less than a month old and one which may yet pay off. Yet after a seventh defeat in nine games - United's worst run since 1962 - it is beginning to look hasty.

This victory, meanwhile, makes it likely City will become the first Premier League champions in a decade to defend their crown. They are expected to then win the FA Cup and become the first English club to secure a domestic treble.

And yet even then, they will fall short of what Keane, Solskjaer and their United team-mates in 1999 achieved, this season at least. Some standards are set incredibly high, almost impossible to match or exceed. And when that is the case, it is best to look forward, not back.

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