They have all tried to emulate Sir Alex Ferguson, but David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ralf Rangnick never quite managed it. Until Erik ten Hag did. Not, admittedly, by winning two Champions Leagues and 13 Premier Leagues, but by reviving memories of the worst result of Ferguson’s 1500-game reign. His Manchester United, like Ferguson’s, conceded six goals in a Manchester derby.
Go back to 2011 and there was a palpable sense of shock at the scoreline. Now? Mild surprise, perhaps.
Manchester United had won their four previous games. They had claimed the scalps of Liverpool and Arsenal. But if this was an exhibition by City and an embarrassment for United, if this was 6-3 rather than 6-1, Anthony Martial’s late brace was not the reason there was a greater sense of normality now.
This is what United are now. They can be imbued with £200 million of signings, but they are accustomed to humiliation, scarred by shameful displays. In the broader picture, it was not even their worst result of Ten Hag’s brief tenure. That was losing 4-0 to Brentford.
It was not the first time this season they had conceded four first-half goals; indeed it was the fourth in under two years. The managers change, the players veer in and out of the side and the expensive signings arrive but some things stay the same: United can be hammered. There are results that are both historic and familiar, matches that sum up the emptiness of the post-Ferguson United.
Ferguson, the master of the cunning, should have known better and declined the invitation. There was something predictable about the manner of this, and not merely about the treble that meant Erling Haaland already has as many Premier League hat-tricks as Cristiano Ronaldo.
Manchester clubs have made flagship striking signings in successive summers, United lumbering themselves with a declining great on huge wages, City potentially setting themselves up for a second decade of dominance in Greater Manchester, and perhaps far beyond.
For Erik ten Hag, who had argued that United were playing against City and not Haaland, came the unpleasant realisation they could not cope with either; not with the goal machine nor with array of interchanging, inventive attacking midfielders Pep Guardiola has assembled with the kind of planning United have eschewed.
Ten years ago, Ferguson ago tapped up Guardiola to be his successor over dinner in New York; the Catalan later joked that his inability to understand the Glaswegian accent meant he did not realise if he was offered the job. He remains the last United manager to finish above City. For Ten Hag, this was a warning the gap could stretch to 35 points again.
His renaissance was bookended by routs, his winning run sandwiched by thrashings. If he is to prove his revival was not built on sand, he will have to do something neither Moyes nor Rangnick could and recover from an evisceration at the Etihad.
Certainly some of his plans seemed in rubble. Tyrell Malacia, one of his signings, was removed at half-time, incapable of halting the second City player to get a hat-trick, in Phil Foden. Alongside him, Lisandro Martinez’s height was not the problem: even when Haaland scored a header, it was Scott McTominay he outjumped. But he anchored a defence breached six times. Raphael Varane hobbled off at 3-0; that injury spared Harry Maguire an outing felt a merciful release so instead Victor Lindelof was found horribly wanting. Diogo Dalot was booked inside 100 seconds and his afternoon did not get much better.
And yet the greatest problems may have occurred ahead of him. There was a void where United needed a midfield. It has been United’s greatest problem since Paul Scholes started to decline, and Scholes will be 48 soon.
It was a game that cried out for a world-class defensive midfielder; perhaps even a quadruple Champions League winner who was valued at £70m. Come 59 minutes and Casemiro was belatedly summoned to limit the damage. He could not, and two more goals soon followed.
United’s reliance on individuals meant it would have been a tough ask for one man to halt the swarms of raiders in sky blue, allying relentlessness allied with elusiveness in a display of rampant superiority. United, meanwhile, were weakened by choice.
Maybe it was misplaced loyalty to a side who had won four consecutive games or managerial obduracy but he should have started. There is a suspicion Casemiro is not Ten Hag’s pick; he is not Frenkie de Jong or a De Jong clone, more destructive than constructive.
In his absence, McTominay made a heroic block after three minutes, denying Bernardo Silva a goal, but this was not to be an epic rearguard action. McTominay gets in the way of things; perhaps he has been an obstacle to United’s progress.
In a midfield featuring Kevin de Bruyne, Silva and Ilkay Gundogan against Christian Eriksen, Bruno Fernandes and McTominay, there were five extraordinary manipulators of a football, players with technique and creativity, vision and incision.
There was also McTominay, the odd man out, the wholehearted indictment of United’s failings. Eriksen was sadly too slow, Fernandes booked for yet another display of dissent.
Meanwhile, Ferguson frowned on. Perhaps he can empathise with Ten Hag, but his nightmare in 2011 was a one-off. Since his empire crumbled, this can happen to United. As the City fans chorused “we want 10,” the United manager could at least be grateful part of his surname was not found in the scoreline.