The gulf between Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and the best tacticians in the Premier League has become a point of embarrassment for Manchester United.
There is no other way to interpret the second game in succession at Old Trafford in which the opponent, a title challenger lightyears ahead of the hosts, doesn’t even bother playing in the second half.
That’s two dead 45 minutes in a row; a full 90 of a superior opponent looking disengaged and disinterested, not needing to lift themselves out of first gear.
When Liverpool visited it was 5-0 and could have been ten. This time it was 2-0 and should have been six or seven, such was the dominance of Pep Guardiola’s side on a rainy day in Manchester.
Where United go from here depends on how the board to choose to interpret the data, and certainly recent history suggests they will continue to back Solskjaer and decide that being within touching distance of the top four means things are just about OK.
But they may not be satisfied with the probability Man Utd will be 11 points off the top by the end of Saturday. They are also six points behind Manchester City, who are not having a perfect season by any stretch but are practically playing a different sport.
This should be the end for Solskjaer, another wretched performance against rivals and the final nail in the coffin. It probably won’t be.
The tactical pattern of the game was predictable enough following the defensive caution in United’s 3-0 win at Tottenham last weekend, but while Solskjaer’s 5-3-2 worked in north London he was foiled today by a considerably more intelligent tactician.
United’s 5-3-2 looked shaky from the outset. Mason Greenwood was deployed behind Cristiano Ronaldo in order to man-mark Rodri as the hosts sat very deep, shuffling across in a compact shape to try to limit City in the final third.
It didn’t work chiefly because of Guardiola’s superbly detailed battle plan for the game, as Gabriel Jesus and Phil Foden pinned the wing-backs to create big pockets of space on the outsides of United’s three-man midfield.
That space, which Spurs threatened to exploit last weekend, was wrenched open and attacked ruthlessly by the visitors, on one side by Joao Cancelo and on the other Kevin de Bruyne, ghosting out to the right half-space to receive a pass and whip a dangerous ball into the box.
The Belgian’s influence led indirectly to the first goal and Cancelo’s runs led directly to the killer second, just before the break.
De Bruyne’s subtle influence was crucial precisely because it went unseen. City’s false nine Bernardo Silva stood in a narrow line with De Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan (the free eights roaming extremely high in the first half) to create three number tens dancing in front of United’s defenders, who looked lost without a striker to mark.
Meanwhile Fred and Scott McTominay were hopelessly overwhelmed by the sheer number of bodies lurking in their zone and, pulled ever narrower by City’s shape, it is no wonder the United midfield then failed to notice when De Bruyne leaned out to the right.
Many will criticise Solskjaer for deploying such a low line and for leaving these spaces open on the outside of the midfield, but he was right to go defensive. Anything more progressive or expansive would have caused an even greater disaster.
That is the cold reality of Solskjaer as United manager; he isn’t good enough to compete, and a hesitant park-the-bus mentality is the best he could do here.
City should have won by a bigger margin, of course, and aside from the glaring misses we saw from Foden, John Stones, and others they again looked short of a striker.
An elite finisher – someone to pop up in the right places and make devastating runs on the shoulder of the last defender – would have torn Man Utd to shreds today. Man City have failed to score in three league games this season already, the same number as in the whole of last season, and it’s easy to see why.
There were times today when they had too many players in front of United’s defence to hurt them in the way Liverpool did a fortnight ago.
Not that Guardiola will be concerned today. Man City never looked in danger, restricting United to five shots across the entire match, and by the end it was this sense of control – casually holding Solskjaer’s side at arms’ length in a nothing second half – that will most incense Man Utd fans.
Even during a ten minute rise in tempo at the start of the second half, when Solskjaer’s switch to a 4-2-3-1 briefly saw United get hold of the ball, Man City never looked like conceding.
It wasn’t long before they shut the game down completely; a humiliating situation, and yet arguably the most embarrassing moment was still to come.
In the final ten minutes Donny van de Beek, whose name had been chanted by the Stretford End earlier in the half, was given a rare run out. His first touch was applauded, his first loss of possession jeered, and a neat pirouette on the half-way line treated with an ironic, pantomime cheer.
That is a bad look; a sign the fans are laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation, and perhaps at Solskjaer’s management.
We’ve seen this version of Manchester United so many times before it would be naive to predict an end to the cycle. Solskjaer, and the interminable cycle of boom and bust, will go on.
Nothing ever seems to change, despite the fact it has been proven over and over again that United’s manager is nowhere near good enough.
Today he was outclassed so completely his opposite number Guardiola could, like Klopp before him, shut things down with half the match still to play. It’s just that easy to outmanoeuvre the man in the home dugout.