Robin Sainty: Finally, a City away day to savour

Pierre Lees-Melou of Norwich in action during the Premier League match at Old Trafford, Manchester

Pierre Lees-Melou produced another impressive performance at Old Trafford - Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd

I suppose it’s a sign of progress that I came away from Manchester feeling annoyed and frustrated by City’s defeat rather than completely numb, as has been the case too often this season.

Away games had largely become more about the camaraderie than the football, with so many weak and passive displays on show.

However, on Saturday, as against Burnley, City put in a level of effort and a performance that got the fans totally behind the team and the final result was cruel after City had contributed so much to the game.

Ultimately, three errors cost them a positive result and Dean Smith will be annoyed that those errors came from two of his most experienced players.

The first was particularly frustrating because it was so totally self-inflicted. Dimitris Giannoulis’s pass inside was ill-advised, but Ben Gibson’s decision to try to play his way out was fatal, and Cristiano Ronaldo cashed in.

Many times this season going a goal down early away from home and then having to cope with a long period of pressure before eventually conceding a second would have seen City crumble, but at Old Trafford, helped by the timing of Kieran Dowell’s goal, they mounted a committed fight-back and probably had the better of the chances before Tim Krul failed to deal with Ronaldo’s free-kick and the points went United’s way.

Manchester United Interim Manager Ralf Rangnick and Norwich Head Coach Dean Smith during the Premier

Dean Smith on the Old Trafford touchline with Manchester United interim manager Ralf Rangnick - Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd

Smith will undoubtedly have been pleased by the performances of Giannoulis and Dowell, while Pierre Lees-Melou was able to build on his impressive showing against Burnley with more surging runs.

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However, what will please him even more is the continued renaissance of Teemu Pukki, who has responded to the change back to 4-2-3-1 with gusto as he finds himself with support and the sort of channel balls that he thrives on.

Fans were somewhat bemused by Smith’s substitutions. Clearly Kenny McLean was struggling with an injury and Dowell was looking fatigued, but the decision to replace them with Billy Gilmour and Przemysław Płacheta wasn’t universally popular.

Of course, it's much easier to manage from the stands or an armchair than the dugout, but while an injection of pace from Placheta was a risk worth taking, the choice of Gilmour over Lukas Rupp, who would appear to offer more, both creatively and defensively, than the Scot was puzzling.

Leaving that aside it does seem that Smith is finally getting what he wants from this group of players and a pattern of play along the lines of the quick breaking style that he employed at Aston Villa has started to emerge over the last couple of games.

City are clearly looking to make the transition through midfield more quickly while also getting players breaking forward in support of Pukki with more commitment than was the case earlier in the season. As a result, they now look to carry a genuine goal threat in games, as evidenced by the number of efforts they racked up at Old Trafford.

Hopefully, that will continue today against a side that embody all that I detest about the Premier League. Newcastle squandered vast amounts of money under Mike Ashley and were headed for a well-deserved relegation before being saved by the bottomless coffers of a reprehensible regime, who breezed through the league’s totally unfit-for-purpose Owners and Directors test.

That doesn’t matter a jot to the majority of their fans who will happily hold their noses against the smell and dream about the trophies that the Saudi riches may buy them, but to me it’s yet another example of how the game is being subsumed by money and the desire for instant success, regardless of where that money comes from.

I actually feel sorry for the majority of the Newcastle players who must know that they’ll be gone next season when the cash really starts to flow, and the big stars start to roll in.