Manchester United play zombie-ball with Solskjær a baffled spectator

With 56 minutes gone, as Manchester City’s players pinged and tickled the ball around, 2-0 up and basically doing a yoga workout, a team conga in the Manchester United half, Jadon Sancho went to press Kyle Walker, looked behind and saw Luke Shaw 40 yards away watching with an expression of vague interest.

Sancho raised his arm and began to shout a complaint. He reined himself in. The forward is 20 years old and yet to carry out a single significant act in a United shirt. He has though, played at the Dortmund school of science.

He trained with Pep Guardiola. He has a basic modern footballer’s understanding of positions, the stuff you learn from Fifa 21 or screenshots on Twitter from a Papua New Guinean blogger.

Sancho could see it. His manager? Well, he was standing 30 yards away, motionless in skinny black suit and club anorak, staring out with that familiar look of bafflement, a man feeling the day slide away from him once again, still there at the wheel, still crashing in the same car.

It would be flattering to describe this as a traumatic experience for Manchester United. This? This was nothing.

Once again Ole Gunnar Solskjær was bullied and joshed and ragged by the away section. Once again United produced their secondary formation, the parking of the executive bus, with seven defensive players from the start – but with no fibre, no substance, nothing to sustain this team beyond the gold leaf tomahawk steak up front.

At times you wondered, what was the point of this game of football? Did it ever stand a chance? Alas, the Manchester derby, transformed in the Solskjær era into an extended exercise in how to lose slowly.

City were excellent. But they were also barely stretched in any part of the pitch, reeling off 15 shots at goal, dominating every metric, and enjoying surely the easiest Manchester City victory in the modern history of this fixture.

And so here we are again. The run of games that seemed likely to decide the trajectory of this third Solskjær season now reads: horrifying 5-0 defeat to Liverpool; 3-0 revival against a half-dead Tottenham; heroic 2-2 mess against Atalanta And now this, a sitting down by a genuine team, properly managed. Lads, it’s not Tottenham.

The lack of plan was at least different to the lack of plan against Liverpool. But the effects were the same, despite that beefed-up centre, with the same sense of United’s players as atomised units, the midfielders faced with huge open spaces in front of them, always trying to block or slide or fill that void, where a modern team operates as a drilled, shared matrix of resistance.

City were driven on by a wonderful performance of creative left full-back play from João Cancelo, who is out on his own in that role right now. Guardiola had fielded a team of central midfielders and started the game with four of them stood in a deep line between the red shirts, nobody even pretending to be a centre-forward, the birth of the false, false nine.

Cancelo made the opening goal, a man who just seems to have that goal-voodoo in his boots, timing, placement, range, and also luck.

His cross from the left induced something horrible from Eric Bailly, who drew back his right foot – too far, too wildly- and sliced the clearance across David de Gea and into the top corner.

The game pretty much died at that point, with United already in full Deontay Wilder knockout-artist mode, staggering around the ring, holding on, gassed and puffing, sustained only by the vague hope of landing a golden punch.

The second City goal, just before half-time, was made by a fine bit of play from Bernardo Silva, skimming a pass out to Cancelo, then scampering on to take the return. And also by a terrible piece of defending from Shaw who stood still, calm, a little dreamy, as Silva crept in behind and deflected the ball into the net off De Gea, a pickpocket’s goal.

De Gea could be seen attacking the tunnel as he walked off at the break. It felt a little jarring. Really? Now we’re punching the wall? So mild, so passive, so stuck within the limits of their own plan, it felt at times as though there was nowhere for Solskjær’s iteration of United to go after this.

The manager has tried to play in a more “progressive” way, and seen his team eviscerated. On Saturday, he went back into that comfortable shell. But really, what is the point of assembling all this talent and playing like that? How have we reached this creative and intellectual dead end?

United are in a weird place. This whole process is in danger of becoming a real-time experiment. What if you just didn’t sack the manager? What if you allowed the process to carry on, past mild under-performance, into hard under-performance, into humiliation, and then – well, what?

Something, it seems, that looks a bit like this, a kind of zombie-ball. Albeit, one that seems to have a little way still to stagger.