When Manchester City beat Tottenham Hotspur 5-1 at White Hart Lane at the end of August, Manchester United did what they have been doing for half a century and eclipsed the majesty of that performance by beating Arsenal 8-2. If these had been four anonymous teams, it might perhaps have been rather easier to acknowledge what at the time was barely a puff of dust on the horizon: that it had been City's performance that had been more impressive, that the "noisy neighbors" might perhaps have arrived.
This, after all, was City, drenched in a history of slapstick underachievement, a club with soap opera in its soul -- great wins followed by comedic defeats have become a way of life. Tottenham had played only one game before then, losing 3-0 to Manchester United, which, together with the uncertainty over the future of Luka Modric, perhaps led one to underestimate it: of the six games since, Spurs have won five and drawn one. Retrospectively, that result looks even more impressive than it did at the time. Similarly, as Arsenal's defensive woes continued, so United's win became less eye-catching: frankly, you'd expect United to score twice as many against a given team as Blackburn.
But still, what happened at Old Trafford was stunning: United's first home defeat by five goals since 1955; the first time it had let in six at home since 1930; its heaviest derby defeat since 1926. Records were broken that have stood for a long time. As Alex Ferguson always says, though, what matters in terms of league championships is less the defeat than the reaction to the defeat. Say United had beaten Arsenal 2-0 and then lost 1-0 to City; there wouldn't -- obviously -- have been such furor about either result, and yet the net effect on United's goal difference would be the same. This has been a season of two jaw-dropping results at Old Trafford; mathematically, they almost cancel out.
Soccer, of course, isn't just math and it may be that the scale of the defeat to City derails United. It seems unlikely, though: With two minutes to go, it was 3-1 and City was looking anxious despite playing against 10 men. Only in injury time did defeat become romp. Now the issue is why. Ferguson afterward suggested it was because his side kept attacking; that, of course, has always been a strength of United and the source of its remarkable ability to turn games around. To do it while a man down and 4-1 down perhaps suggests a lack of discipline, but it's far from the worst of crimes.
There are other reasons for United to be positive. It has now played the five teams who finished immediately below it last season and only two of the teams that finished in the bottom 10. It has another 12 league games to play before it again meets a side that qualified for European competition through league position of cup performance (although it must play Newcastle United twice in that time). City, meanwhile, has to go to Anfield and Stamford Bridge and faces a home game against Arsenal before Christmas. It would be some achievement for it to maintain that five-point lead to the end of the year and, as Gary Neville pointed out in his program notes on Sunday, the real test of City comes in March, April and May and how it deals with the run in.
That said, there are obvious negatives. Was the capitulation in injury-time merely a side that, famously, never knows when it is beaten, paying the price for failing to acknowledge what was obvious? Or is there something more fundamental there? After all, United has been defensive shaky this season. Arsenal, it should not be forgotten, not only scored twice but also missed a penalty in the 8-2; it totaled an astonishing 20 shots. Chelsea, although it lost 3-1 at Old Trafford, had more chances (and 22 shots). Even Tottenham, beaten 3-0, mustered 21. Going into the weekend, David De Gea had made more saves than any other Premier League keeper this season, which speaks of a laxity.
The center of defense is a clear issue. Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand have both have time out with injury, and the suspicion is that while Phil Jones looks exceptional on the ball, his positional sense is still developing. The problem on Sunday, though, was Jonny Evans, a worryingly error-prone defender, who was outwitted by a one-two between Mario Balotelli and David Silva, and responded by hauling Balotelli down.
There must also be doubts, though, about the whole structure of the center of midfield. United last season got away with what was basically a 4-4-2 shape because Wayne Rooney so often came deep to win the ball; the apogee of the defensive forward. His failure to track Sergio Busquets was a major contributory factor in United's defeat to Barcelona in the Champions League final, and this season, magnificent as he has been as an attacking force, he is running far less. Without that tracking, United's central midfield two of Anderson and Darren Fletcher was overwhelmed, often outnumbered, even though City also started out with a basic 4-4-2.
The difference was that City's theoretical wide-men, David Silva and James Milner, played much narrower than Nani and Ashley Young; City's shape, in fact, was at times akin to a Brazilian 4-2-2-2, with Yay Toure and Gareth Barry holding and Milner and Silva given license to cut in from their flanks; Milner, notably, accepted Silva passes to set up the first and second goals for Balotelli from opposite flanks. That not only gave City fluidity -- enhanced by the mobility of forwards Sergio Aguero and Mario Balotelli -- but also additional bodies in the center of the pitch. The performance of Micah Richards, meanwhile, driving on form fullback, and dominating Young almost absolutely, ensured there was always width on at least one flank.
For this was not just about United's failings; this was also about confirming City's emergence as a very good team indeed. It might just be time to take Manchester's perennial pratfallers seriously.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England. Editor of The Blizzard.