LONDON: Robin van Persie shuffled out of the Liberty Stadium on Saturday evening on crutches, with his ankle encased in a protective boot. As a symbol of Manchester United's season it was telling: with a lame defeat against Swansea City, their challenge for a Champions League berth took a -serious knock. One, moreover, which could well require radical surgery.
As Van Persie hobbled away, the seriousness of his injury to be assessed by the medical staff at Car-rington, the Welsh club had just achieved the first league double over United. More pertinently, as their manager Garry Monk pointed out, there was nothing fortuitous about the way it was achieved. There was no bus parking. Like their win at Old Trafford on the -opening day of the season, there was an element of the routine about it.
"It is great history for the club and something very special - against United, six points on merit," Monk said. "We didn't hang on, in both games we competed. They weren't lucky wins." Monk had achieved his double by doing his homework.
Last month, Swansea had been eviscerated on their home turf by the coruscating midfield play of Chelsea. The manager ensured this time that there would be no repeat by altering his system to accommodate his visitors' increasingly predictable threat.
"I looked at United and saw the way they were likely to set up and felt we couldn't let them get too much control in midfield so we changed it a little," Monk said. "I thought it worked really well first half. I felt at the right moment we got another goal and then changed it to block it up because they were coming down the wings a bit too easily. All in all we did well. To limit them to one shot shows we dealt with it well."
He was right there. Despite his entire team costing less than United paid for Angel Di Maria, Monk's side never for a moment looked outclassed, outpaced or out-thought. Indeed, after Bafetimbi Gomis had inadvertently got his head in the way of Jonjo Shelvey's fearsome shot to deflect their second goal past David de Gea, Swansea's defence saw out the last quarter of the game facing little in the way of a sophisticated response from their guests.
Rather, United continued their recent tactic of spearing long balls to the far post in the hope that Marouane Fellaini might head them down into the danger area. Frankly, as a tactical approach there are Conference sides with more vision.
The dependence Louis van Gaal now has on his Belgian midfielder-turned-emergency-centre-forward is baffling. If it had worked consistently since he adapted the approach of sticking the mop-haired big man up front then the value in pursuing it might be more obvious. But here it was simply hopeless.
Not once in the latter stages of the game, despite a string of inviting crosses from the substitute Ashley Young, did Fellaini make decisive contact with the ball. For a team facing defeat to fail to produce more than one shot on target all half was the most telling indictment.
Mind, it would be unfair to blame Fellaini for all of United's troubles. He was playing alongside several more elevated talents who looked in woeful form. Van Persie may have been hobbling through the last 10 minutes of the game, but he had been largely ineffective for the previous 80, a shot into the side netting the sum of his contribution. Di Maria, had another anonymous game. At times he appeared to find it hard even to control the ball properly, frequently ceding possession to Swansea's busy Shelvey and Jack Cork.
True, Ander Herrera started the game decisively, adding precision to the United game. He scored an excellent opening goal, putting the finishing touches to build-up play that offered tantalising hint of United's potential. But his influence waned as Van Gaal preferred to utilise long balls.
It was the way United finished the game that will have most perturbed their fans. The failure to inconvenience mid-table opponents remotely does not induce a surfeit of optimism about bigger challenges ahead.