"There's something rotten in the State of Denmark..."
Shakespeare's famous quotation hints at the unravelling of Prince Hamlet's domain, or as Bob Garratt has suggested:
"The fish rots from the head..."
There are signs that Manchester United's modern dynasty could unravel. Of course one result doesn't cause something as fundamental as this, but it can either be a symptom or the first tile in a domino rally.
Sir Alex Ferguson is 70 on New Year's Eve and while that in itself may not be significant and Sir Bobby Robson went on to 71, the question must be asked—what would trigger his retirement?
On the one hand, he is a born fighter and "the heaviest defeat in my career" may lead him to fight even harder to defend the best individual record in history; it might instead trigger the start of the end.
Is it not likely that David Gill, or even Malcolm Glazer, may have asked Fergie on Sunday...or Monday..."Are you sure you still want to go on?" Because the decision always was and remains his and his alone, but sometimes someone has to be saved from himself...
So let's just suppose for the time being that Sir Alex is still up for the fight. Are we not right to ask instead whether there may be many more early warning signs of impending profound change at Old Trafford?
And there are...
I sat there quietly in the first half, with a resigned air of expectation...in the second half I was just numb. No I didn't leave early...I couldn't...
In every respect the collapse against Manchester City was a shock—its occurrence, its cause, its scale, speed and depth.
For City to have won by one or two goals would not really have been unusual, given their propensity to play attacking football this year and the strength of their firepower. That could have been written off as an aberration.
Even at 3-1, United could have salvaged some self-respect based on a consolation goal. Five minutes of normal time to go...shut up shop...
But it didn't happen. Instead, United self-destructed in an alarming way, where all the supposed level heads lost their composure and became spectators at a ritual execution.
But this is far from the only sign of possible decline...
Sunday wasn't just a one-off. The power in the blue part of Manchester is growing. Look at the scale of the eight wins so far...and a record number of goals.
Last season in the Manchester derby at Eastlands, Mancini shut up shop. This year at Old Trafford, after just one slip, City went for the jugular...and tore United apart.
For all that Sir Alex can use this humiliation to motivate his players, the scale of the collapse was such that right now he doesn't know what team to put out against Everton. And even if he gets that right and wins, every other team in the Premiership now only has to watch the City video to see how to get at United.
It is a time for leadership at Old Trafford, starting at the top. It's a time for finding out who has the stomach for a fight, who are the natural-born leaders who will emerge out of the crisis—at any level, old or young.
Change is taking place in Manchester and in the Premier League. Sir Alex can stop that, but it will be a long hard haul and he does not yet have all the resources he needs. But he could have had, because the signs were there last year.
It always seemed ironic last season that people kept saying how badly United were playing.
How can you win the Premier League playing badly? Well, they did, because Arsenal and Liverpool were in decline, Spurs could not reproduce their previous season's form, Chelsea blew up badly and City didn't have the self-belief that would take them to the next level.
United won the title with the lowest number of points and number of wins since 1999. The inadequacies in midfield, which have been a pressing problem since Roy Keane went, were evidenced by the low number of goals scored and high number conceded.
Whether or not it was a response to this, the team started this season with a bang. Sir Alex had them at possibly the best fitness levels from preseason perhaps ever. United played even more attacking football, the goals went in and suddenly they were flying at the top.
But they have also conceded the most chances with their open football. The Otelul and Basel matches showed this. The Arsenal match disguised it because the latter were so awful and if Chelsea had been able to hit a barn door there might have been another humiliating home defeat.
Yes, of course the injury disruptions in defence haven't helped and the early season momentum with Cleverley in midfield evaporated. Since then, the Boss has tinkered and the obvious lessons haven't been learned.
Four times Sir Alex has commented on how "open" United were (Arsenal, Basel, Chelsea and Otelul). Playing like that against with 10 men against City was asking for trouble and the punishment arrived.
What is most worrying is that the senior players—most notably Evra and Ferdinand—did nothing to stop this and the manager appears to have blithely stood by without saying a word. How can he blame the players and not do anything about it?
The warning signs were there last year and also this season, despite the terrific start...
No, it's not just about Wesley Sneijder, but it is about the scale of the problem.
One of Sir Alex's great qualities is in giving youth a chance. And few would deny that Tom Cleverley is a great prospect—so may prove Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison. In addition, Anderson was finally fully fit for a preseason. And you always need strength in depth.
Also, it's not simply a matter of replacing Paul Scholes. There is no such thing, but Rooney can do a lot of what Paul could.
No. The problem which was never addressed was how to replace Roy Keane, because he had the talent and all-round playing ability to cover up for other's deficiencies. If he were here now, you could develop Cleverley, Pogba and Morrison alongside him.
The best prospect that United had within their grasp was and is Wesley Sneijder, because he can do all that Keane could do and he is genuinely world class. You could build a team round him.
Whatever the ins and outs of the Sneijder deal, United should have done whatever was needed to land him, because he is the missing piece of the jigsaw. Instead, they got sidetracked into a possible sexy deal with Samir Nasri until City gazumped them, leaving them with nothing but faith in youth.
But in any case, Nasri wasn't the complete answer. You would need a proper defensive midfielder as well and where would that have left the blossoming youth prospects then?
So the problem has not been resolved and unless United sign an all-rounder of class in January, they will not win the title.
You can look, Wayne, but it's not coming home any time soon unless the fundamental problems are addressed.
The most worrying thing about the Champions League defeat in 2011 was that United and Sir Alex appeared to have learned nothing since the last time Barcelona outplayed them.
There is another worry. If you're a world-class player, of course you're going to consider one of the greatest clubs in the world when they come calling. But if you have a choice between Barca, Real Madrid and even City, you're likely to choose them first. Why? Because Barca are the best; the other two have the ambition to pay whatever it takes and City are now a credible European challenger.
So in the last year or so, Nasri, Angel di Maria, Alexis Sanchez and David Silva—all players United were known to have a serious interest in—have gone elsewhere. And Sneijder/Inter Milan held out for a better deal than United were prepared to finance.
Last October Wayne Rooney refused to sign a new contract unless new players were signed. De Gea, Jones and Young go a long way to deal with that, but as Wazza dandles his kid on his knee and gazes into the fire, he knows that the need is for a complete, world-class midfielder. And who will come?
Make no mistake. He is possibly the greatest manager in the world—possibly ever. To be still managing at the top of world football after more than three decades is extraordinary.
But there are worrying signs. When Wayne Rooney refused to sign a new contract last October, there was the threat that the team's fortunes might unravel because of his talismanic importance.
Sir Alex handled the PR/media brilliantly and made it look like a success in persuading Wayne to stay but the truth is that the player was the first to "hold a gun" to United's head.
The recent ticket-tout debacle is unsettling because even though he himself is innocent, it raised a question about Sir Alex's judgement in passing the tickets on.
Starting with Barcelona, his tactics and team selection have occasionally come into question, although he confounded everyone by fielding a scratch team of defenders against Arsenal last year and winning comfortably.
He has always had something of a short fuse, but his irascibility with the media and referees has not won him many friends.
Eventually he will retire and it will be his decision, but what happens if Cathy asks him if he still wants to carry on after the City match? And what if he can't go out on a high is this season produces no trophies?
It's a high-profile job and others have thrown in the towel previously, due to the stress—Kenny Dalglish, Steve Coppell and Kevin Keegan included. He may still have the passion at 70, but what if it becomes like pushing water up a hill?
Can anyone say what is United's best side?
Sir Alex has taken over the mantle of Claudio Ranieri as a "tinkerman." Recently he had gone over 130 matches without fielding the same side. Is that squad rotation or indecision? And what does it do for team morale?
Last year Berbatov was joint Premier League top scorer. This year he can't get a game.
For as long as Sir Alex has the trust, respect and loyalty of his players, it isn't a problem. But if Paul Pogba, Berbatov, Owen and others decide to leave to get a regular start, how does that impact the patience of others?
The City match exacerbates the problem, because after the drubbing Sir Alex is less likely to take risks e.g. with young players.
Yes there have been injuries, especially in defence, but who can say whether the constant rotation hasn't finally had an effect on the commitment and focus of the likes of Ferdinand and Vidic, the rocks of his defence for the last few years?
Indiscipline is a potential sign of breakdown. Neither Vidic nor Rooney were under any pressure at the time of their recent sendings off. Both fouls were committed near the halfway line, under the nose of their manager.
Were they both frustrated? If so, why? There could have been other red cards this season. Jonny Evans lost concentration twice on Sunday and cost his side dearly. Is everybody happy at Old Trafford? Were Vidic's and Evra's loyalty bought with the captain and vice-captain's armbands?
Vidic still isn't fully fit after his early season calf problem. Wayne Rooney looks out of form again. Are these signs of another, deeper malaise?
Sir Alex looked very distracted when he arrived at his press conference for the City match last Friday. Was this because of problems with individual players or in the squad?
Rio Ferdinand looks seriously out of form. His back wasn't even risked for the trip to Rumania. He was a shadow of his old self against City.
Patrice Evra wore the captain's armband against City, as he has done while Vidic has been injured. He's not having a good season and was a major factor behind the tactical indiscipline that allowed City to run riot.
Is Ryan Giggs finally "over the hill"?
Could Sir Alex afford to lose all these players and maybe Vidic as well? Does he need to buy again in January just in case—and then go through a further process of rebuilding while City play a more-or-less settled side?
The good news is that a raft of players has come through the Academy into the Reserves that will augment the first-team squad for years to come. Some are already in that squad, like Pogba, Morrison and the Keane twins.
But the Academy has been a conveyor belt in the recent past, going back to Fergie's Fledglings. The manager's biggest headache right now is how to accommodate the talent at Old Trafford and out on loan, while sustaining a high level of performance.
Behind these players, however, the next crop of youngsters is woefully underperforming this season. The team is ninth out of 10 in the Academy League, propped up only by Crewe Alexandra. And guess who's top? Manchester City of course, some 12 points ahead.
Does this mean that United are no longer the draw that they once were at youth level, or is the whole coaching hierarchy getting tired now that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has gone to win Molde their first trophy for a long time?
It may not be significant for the first team for at least three or four years, but does it presage a general decline?
Manchester United made a serious mistake when they announced Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement part way through a season a few years ago. It may be that Sven Goren Ericksson was lined up to come—who knows? This time, only a select few will know.
But can they afford to leave it until United are in decline? Surely they need to sign players in January to strengthen the squad—especially in midfield—and ensure a decent finish at the end of the season and in the Champions League.
But if next summer is the time for a world-class coach like Pep Guardiola to come in, won't he want to bring several of his own signings in? And won't the board want to keep back a transfer kitty of up to £100 million for the purpose?
So there is the dilemma. Sir Alex and the board may already have decided to muddle through without any signings in January. It is not beyond Fergie to turn this round, silence the doubters and deliver glory again. The very least that would be acceptable is a top-three finish and another trophy.
He has worked the oracle before and has the talent to blend youth and experience. That was in evidence at the start of the season. Let's hope it is so on Saturday and beyond, because otherwise the downward spiral of inexorable change may already have begun.