The writing was on the wall for Manchester United the moment striker Robin van Persie was declared a non-starter for their derby against Manchester City on Sunday.
Even with Wayne Rooney producing an energetic display, the loss of the Dutchman with a groin injury left United toothless against a City side who revelled in a 4-1 victory at the Etihad.
Sergio Aguero scored twice as City outran, outmuscled and outclassed United exposing the Premier League champions’ weaknesses in all departments. Aguero volleyed City ahead after 16 minutes and made it 3-0 in the opening minute of the second half after Yaya Toure had put the home side in command on the stroke of half-time.
United’s defence was sliced wide open again when Samir Nasri volleyed home after 50 minutes and manager David Moyes’ first Manchester derby descended into a nightmare.
Rooney’s curling free kick was the only ray of sunshine for United, who have now lost four of the last five league derbies with City, who climbed to third in the table with 10 points, two behind leaders Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, who both won to continue their strong starts. United are in eighth place with seven points from five matches.
Aaron Ramsey scored his seventh goal of the season as Arsenal beat Stoke City 3-1 at the Emirates Stadium, while Brazilian Paulinho struck deep into stoppage time to earn Tottenham a 1-0 victory at Cardiff City.
Swansea City followed up a notable 3-0 Europa League win in Valencia with a 2-0 victory at Crystal Palace that moved Michael Laudrup’s side into mid-table.
Van Persie’s 26 league goals were the reason United claimed the title last season, his timely interventions often papering over some obvious cracks.
Deprived of him against City, Moyes would have hoped for a more robust response from the likes of Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young, Danny Welbeck and new signing Marouane Fellaini but instead his side produced a powderpuff performance.
Moyes said the loss of Van Persie had been a blow, although he refused to use it as an excuse for a performance that asked serious questions about the quality of United’s squad.
“Our squad is really strong. Obviously we miss Robin van Persie, it’s a huge miss to anyone,” Moyes said. “It was a big miss for us, yes.
“I don’t think it [his injury] is that bad. He just felt something in his groin, he’s actually done a little bit of training in the last couple of days. He didn’t want to aggravate it.”
Rooney’s demeanour was about the only positive for Moyes, whose first derby since succeeding Alex Ferguson will not be a happy memory.
“I thought Wayne Rooney was arguably the best player on the pitch. He certainly didn’t deserve to play in the losing team, that’s for sure, he was outstanding,” Moyes said.
The England forward scored United’s consolation goal with a sublime free kick to become the club’s highest scorer in the fixture.
Rooney tried to draw some comfort from the closing stages of the game when United at least created some chances.
“I thought during the last 20 minutes we played some good stuff,” Rooney told United’s website. “Had we done that earlier there might have been a different outcome, but it was too little, too late.”
Moyes was dealt a cruel hand when the Premier League fixtures computer spewed out a torrid start to the former Everton manager’s tenure.
In five games they have faced Chelsea, Liverpool and City, picking up only one point from those clashes and even the League Cup draw seems designed to test Moyes’ mettle to the full with Liverpool looming again on Wednesday.
Another defeat in that game will have alarm bells ringing.
“We wanted to win more of those games,” Moyes said. “We have to do that but maybe if these games were a bit later I might have had a better understanding of the players and the situation at the club.
“I think any manager taking over with the run of fixtures we have had would have found it difficult.”