On Saturday lunchtime, Manchester United got stuck on the carousel again.
This was how former United manager Sir Alex Ferguson described his team’s bewilderment when they came up against the great Barcelona sides, and the overwhelming reason they lost to them, in both the 2009 and 2011 Champions League finals.
“They try to get you on that passing carousel, try to make you dizzy, and you have to be patient,” he once said, as Oliver Kay of the Times reported.
Managed by Pep Guardiola, those Barcelona sides played with a rarely seen fluidity and movement, brilliantly passing the ball at speed. On Saturday, the Catalan was in charge of Manchester City and tormenting United again with the same dizzying football.
For the first 40 minutes at Old Trafford, United were comprehensively outplayed and could not get close to a rampant City.
The ball was confidently ferried between City players as an impotent United did not know whether to press them or to sit back. In the end, they simply looked slow, confused and second best.
While City’s football should be lauded, it will pain United so many of their problems in this defeat were self-inflicted.
It should have come as no surprise to United manager Jose Mourinho how Guardiola would set up his side, for this was the 17th time the pair had faced each other.
This was a signature Guardiola performance, yet Mourinho put out a side woefully ill-prepared to deal with the challenge.
United’s players were statues as their City counterparts moved between them, giving them all the space they needed to execute their game plan.
In the buildup to City’s opener, Henrikh Mkhitaryan gave Aleksandar Kolarov, near his own goal, ample time to launch his pass upfield. The Armenian seemed genuinely confused as to what to do and simply decided to stand still and do nothing.
For City’s second and decisive goal, United had plenty of bodies back in their own penalty area, but no one reacted when Kevin De Bruyne’s shot hit the post. It allowed a rather surprised Kelechi Iheanacho to tap the ball into the net under no pressure whatsoever.
Giving Mkhitaryan and Jesse Lingard their first starts in the Premier League this season over Juan Mata and Anthony Martial defied all expectations and made little sense.
Mata and Martial had started United’s first three league games this season, and both had impressed as they helped United rack up three wins. Yet they were deemed disposable for two players with such limited match practice.
Mkhitaryan had returned from international duty early with an injury, and he didn’t look fully fit against City. Lingard has real talent, and his FA Cup final winner last May has forever enshrined him in the club’s history, but there remains a nagging feeling he is not quite good enough to deserve a place in United’s starting lineup.
It might seem harsh, but while Lingard is a valuable squad player who will certainly contribute this season, he seems destined to play out his career away from Old Trafford at a team such as West Ham United or Southampton.
This was borne out by his insipid, and at times painfully bad, display against City. Along with the neutered Mkhitaryan, he was replaced at half-time. Afterward, a strangely sympathetic Mourinho admitted, per Samuel Luckhurst of the Manchester Evening News, he probably should have replaced both earlier.
It has become increasingly obvious Marcus Rashford should be starting. It is an unforgivable waste for a player of his rare talent to be wearing a tracksuit and sitting on the bench.
In his two previous games, Rashford had scored a late winner for United against Hull City and a hat-trick on his debut for the England under-21s against Norway. Yet this form, this obvious momentum, could not get him into the first XI.
It was an obvious mistake, which Rashford quickly proved after he was brought on at half-time. Here United finally had a player with the confidence and pace to unsettle City.
Rashford is not the future; he has to be the here and now.
While United were winning games, and Paul Pogba was settling in to life back at Old Trafford, it seemed rude to question his position in the side. But it has been obvious he is not suited to playing in the midfield two as part of a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Mourinho is repeating the same mistake the France manager Didier Deschamps made at Euro 2016, during which a largely underwhelming Pogba was shackled by the same system.
It seems rather perverse to pay a world-record £89 million fee for a player and then not use him in his best position.
Stationed next to the limited Marouane Fellaini—another player fortunate to feature so much for Mourinho this season—and too far away from the opposition goal, Pogba has made a solid return with United. Yet he has so far not looked like the player who thrilled at Juventus for four seasons.
Under Massimiliano Allegri in Turin, Pogba thrived on the left side of midfield in a 4-3-3 formation, having the freedom to surge forward and make the most of his almost unique set of skills.
It can’t have escaped Mourinho’s attention that Pogba was immediately more effective when United brought on another midfielder in Ander Herrera and played 4-3-3 in the second half.
Surely it's only a matter of time before Mourinho starts to properly accommodate Pogba and permanently reshuffles his side. It can never have been his intention to spend £89 million on a holding midfielder.
The Mourinho era at Old Trafford is four Premier League games old. It is quite clearly a work in progress, but it should be a concern that Guardiola’s reign across town has had the same amount of domestic games and, on the evidence of Saturday, appears more advanced.
It should also greatly encourage Mourinho that his early problems at Old Trafford have such obvious and simple solutions.