Manchester United suffered their third defeat of the season away against Norwich City after an abject performance, more fitting of relegation candidates than title hopefuls.
Sir Alex was forced to make a goalkeeping change as David De Gea had a dental emergency and so was unfit to play. Anders Lindegaard came in, with Sam Johnstone taking his place on the bench. The back four remained unchanged from last week with Evra and Rafael flanking Ferdinand and Smalling. Giggs came in for Scholes in midfield along with Carrick, Valencia and Young, whilst Hernandez was rewarded for his match winning performance last week with a start next to Robin van Persie who had recovered from a thigh strain which kept him out of international action midweek.
No place either in the starting eleven or the bench for Rooney due to tonsillitis left the capable Danny Welbeck as the only striker on the bench in a game that Ferguson clearly hoped would be wrapped up sooner rather than later.
United’s manager made the right noises about needing to sure up a defence that’s been wracked with injuries before the game, but to no avail. Right from the start the physical presence of Grant Holt caused Ferdinand and Smalling problems, when he wasn’t sniping at the heals of Giggs in midfield.
Norwich executed their game plan perfectly, their 5 man midfield worked hard to close down through balls through the middle of the field, leaving United to repeatedly attempt to work the channels. Unfortunate then that Valencia chose today to have one of his worst games since his return from injury – he looked afraid to attempt to beat his marker, and was markedly off target with his crosses which caused Norwich no trouble at all. Young was no better on the other side of the field, meaning only 8 out of 41 crosses for the reds all game found a red shirt – not good enough.
The brightest moment of the first half for United came just before the break as Giggs floated a delightful ‘Scholes-esque’ chip from left of center to the right side of the box over the Norwich back four to an on running van Persie who tried to volley it with his left foot only to miss the ball entirely.
Things looked no better for United after the half-time break as Norwich began to believe they could look to get more than just a point from the encounter. Buoyed by their recent win over a fading Arsenal side, they began to counter United’s ineffectual build up play with pacy attacks down the wings, catching Rafael and Evra out of position having been asked to run overlaps in attack.
It was from such an attack that Norwich took the lead in the 60th minute, as the impressive Hoolahan played in Garrido who stroked an inch-perfect cross onto the head of the onrushing Antony Pilkington. The pace on the cross was such that Pilkington was able to glance it over Lindegaard who could do nothing about it, though once again his incredibly poor distribution thoughout the rest of the game hamstrung attacks before they could even get going.
This was the 11th time United had gone behind in all competitions this season – a shocking record that should worry coaches and fans alike, even if they had managed a ‘Houdini Act’ in rescuing 8 of those 11 games.
Sir Alex made changes, replacing Valencia and Hernandez with Scholes and Welbeck and then Ferdinand with Anderson with the minutes dwindling, however in truth, they never looked like scoring. They never really threatened Ruddy in Norwich’s goal, and never found a way to penetrate through the middle, or anyone that brought their crossing boots to East Anglia.
United pushed forward towards the end of the game, and should have been 2-0 down as Norwich broke on another counter-attack but Jonny Howson snatched at his shot when through to Lindegaard one on one. The reds were unable to magic up anything further, and the game finished 1-0.
Having seen title rivals Chelsea lose earlier in the day, and having been knocked off the top of the Premier League table by city rivals Manchester City after their 5-0 victory over Aston Villa, it’s hard to imagine the motivation to win was lacking prior to kick off, but the performance from each and every player in a red shirt was lacklustre. There was no drive, or passion, or will to win, no one picked the game up by the scruff of the neck like Rooney is able to do, and at no point did they look like scoring, let alone contending for a win.
Anything other than a Norwich win would have been an injustice to the Canaries, and entirely undeserved for the men in red. An infuriating performance, made all the worse by the thousands of travelling fans now having to cope with the pedestrianisation of Norwich city centre.