They pressed and harried. They attacked with extravagance and intent, revelling in intricate interchanges around the box that sliced through opponents who were running to stand still. For a fleeting moment it was thrilling to witness. A blast from the past. Then the beast let out a long exhausted death rattle and was no more. It had nothing left to give.
A simple game-plan implemented by Louis Van Gaal to over-load City’s right hand side took effect and United enjoyed complete control, just like Barcelona took control – and Middlesbrough and Burnley too – along with 11 other sides in this sorry season where City presently hold the crown of champions.
It was an all-too-familiar tale of being out-fought and out-thought with teams acutely aware that Manchester City leave spaces with abandon and view tracking back as optional built as they are on a cocksure attacking dominance that simply doesn’t exist anymore. Game after game after game they are a man striding confidently into a shop having left his wallet at home.
You think this is a crisis? No, it is the end of an era with apathy a dry rot through the squad and the arrogance that was once the blood-flow to all that was brilliant about them now stripped to meek uncertainty.
So where do they go from here? First and foremost – ahead of the most defining summer in the club’s recent history – the issue of Manuel Pellegrini must be of immediate concern. The under-fire Chilean is now odds-on in the next manager to leave market which is unsurprising considering he is surely now a dead man walking. Even his staunchest defenders are expressing misgivings about his ability to steer City into a top four berth and a successful ‘phase 3′ in Manchester City’s rise from mediocrity to established European elite is patently so dependent on regular Champion’s League football.
Such has been the alarming nature of the Blues’ recent showings that short-term necessity now trumps far-reaching goals and the club’s hierarchy have been forced to reassess their original plan – to retain the 61-year-old for a further season and wait for Pep Guardiola’s availability. This offers up the intriguing proposition of Patrick Vieira being promoted from overseeing the Elite Development Squad and while this is undoubtedly a risk whatever path is ultimately chosen is strewn with peril.
On the playing front things are more straightforward. A significant over-haul of the squad was scheduled anyway for this coming transfer window and with the restrictions of FFP loosened, Director of Football Txiki Begiristain will sanction several big-money moves. Take your pick from Pogba, Koke, Wilshere, Bale and Sterling.
In the departures lounge expect the exquisite David Silva to head for Spain, with a return to Valencia the likeliest outcome, while Yaya Toure has already gone both in his head and by mutual consent. Other probable-to-almost-definite outgoings include Dzeko, Kolorov, Milner, and Nasri.
The darkest hour is just before a new dawn and with City suffering the effects of recent poor recruitment and a nucleus nearing the end of its cycle at least there is cause for optimism in the months to come.
For now though we must draw a veil over the end of an era. And what an era it was. Which brings us back to those opening ten minutes on Sunday. The final roar of a dying beast. An old man at a wedding, leaving his cane on the back of his chair and staggering up to dance the jive one last time. A snapshot of a memory of what City once were and who they might be again.