Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson again complained about not being granted enough injury time, but his tactics throughout the match Saturday are what sent United packing.
Apparently believing the hype of certain outlying individual performances over the past few weeks, Ferguson started the home match against mid-table Aston Villa with an overly cautious 4-5-1 approach, as several players were again expected to play better than they generally are.
Ferguson employed a starting eleven featuring Wayne Rooney uncomfortably alone up top, Ryan Giggs as the central creative driver, with only Antonio Valencia and Ji-Sung Park overlapping outside, to beat Brad Friedel, arguably the best goalkeeper in the top flight over the last decade.
But the manager's reliance on Giggs and Rooney as the source for impetus and innovation going forward indicates as much of his crooked perception in his own players' form as bringing on Michael Owen when United desperately needed a goal.
The stubborn persistence of this tactic employed will see United lose out to Chelsea for this seasons' EPL crown, as most followers already predict.
The inoften times Giggs unlocks a defense or confuses a defender are happily exaggerated in the general public, leading to a surprising growth in legend for the Welshman over the past few seasons.
But his growth is mainly in legend only, for his inability to boss games, much less hold on to the ball consistently or express himself physically, are eagerly overlooked in favor of the outlying occurrences of any successes.
Rooney, by this account, is having another inconsistent season fluctuating from mediocre to only above average. Despite the incessant hype and world-wide adoration from the casualist of fans, his most explosive years in the top flight trace back to wearing a blue shirt or in his earliest United campaigns.
Then he wasn't robotically trained to pickup the ball left of center, inevitably going to his right without faking or attempting any sort of guile to pass square or backwards.
Rooney past used to duck his shoulder, shrug off defenders, and both belt and curl shots from range past pony-tailed goalkeepers. But in the Youtube era, his reputation precedes him each match, and defenders know his disinclination to attack them head-on, use his left foot, or dribble to his left side.
Simply put, when a forward players' greatest asset is his penchant for tracking back, or the intangible "heart" he posesses, there is quality and potential being masked and left wanting.
There's less doubt that Rooney can be more than a serviceable striker for a perennial global top-five club but certainly not playing alone up top in a pedestrian formation formation usually reserved for away matches at Europe's continental giants.
Ferguson's player selection didn't help Rooney's or United's cause.
Although fully fit, Dimitar Berbatov was left on the bench, despite having recovered from a knee injury that interrupted a run of fine form for the Bulgarian. Ferguson said recently that he was "completely satisfied" with the classy linchpin, but his selection doesn't mirror his platitude.
Berba returned from injury Nov. 28 against Portsmouth as an unused substitute. He then started the following match, running the game against Tottenham for the first 60 minutes before inexplicably only appearing as a sub in the last two matches.
Without Ronaldo to beat defenders and create space, United need their best creative players in their spine, and Berbatov has proven this year to be their absolute best in that regard.
Against Villa, the United head coach also optioned Park Ji-Sung on the wing across from Valencia, who, despite improving, is consistently expected to do too much going forward.
But most of Park's value to United went awash when Ronaldo left. The Korean's purpose at the club was to defend as much as Ronaldo attacked, compensating for the void left by the former Ballon d'Or winner whenever he burst forward.
Without such an ostensible attacking winger to foil, there's no real reason for the clumsy but tenacious Park to be gifted a start in a side gravely lacking in verve. Like a poor man's Rooney, Park's best quality is his engine and back-tracking, useful attributes—when you need them.
The complete exclusion of the spider Gabirel Obertan, who has only impressed in his spotty performances this season, shows a crotchety reluctance by Ferguson to give the young, dynamic attacker a starting berth, a philosophy contrary to the manager's supposed motus operandum as a promoter of younger talent.
And when it all went wrong Saturday night, the knighted gaffer continued to err in reason. Instead of finally and mercifully pairing Rooney and Berbatov together to field his most attacking, flowing side—duly assuaging the audience's expectation for enterprising football at Old Trafford—Sir Alex replaced Giggs with Michael Owen.
But despite what recent headlines read, a happenstance hat-trick in a European rubber match has not warped Owen back to 1998 as a prime finisher and shifty runner. Until he consistently resembles a predator, he can't be expected to patch over his manager's tactical mistakes, saving matches after they're already lost.
If Owen is to be the ace in the hole for United's current campaign, Alex Ferguson is clearly believing too much of what he's been reading.
The romantic headlines United's attackers garner are reflective more of each's inconsistency then they are a trustworthy expectation of form throughout the year.
Without allowing Berbatov to dictate play from the beginning, playing 4-4-2, or letting starlets like Obertan or Tosic grow by fire and balance a void for originality in the center, needless setbacks against lesser sides will continue to mar a sub-par year for United in the top flight.