As one of my oldest, closest friends likes to point out whenever ribbing me about something (those closest to you cut the deepest), the saying, “Don’t kick someone while they’re down” makes no sense. After all, they’re that much closer to your foot.
With that in mind, I will not hesitate to be one of the thousands, possibly millions, to pile onto Manchester United after they threw up, maybe literally, their worst performance for a generation. And what makes it just so delicious, is that it backs up and surpasses so many other wretched performances over the past year. The 4-0 loss to Brighton last season was only in May. The combined 9-0 to Liverpool in two games last year (which they will show me replays of whenever it is I become grievously ill or injured to ensure total recovery). A 2-0 loss to City at home when City refused to step on the gas after the 35th minute or so. There are half a dozen more we could choose.
So to top that yesterday, in just 35 minutes no less, is a Herculean feat. United was awful in every way — dumb, disorganized, lazy, with a touch of bad luck thrown in — but they’ve been awful in every way for a while now. The excuse of a new manager (one who came in with a glossy reputation and might just leave with it completely torn to shreds and those shreds set on fire) rings hollow when Erik Ten Hag has had an entire preseason to install whatever it is he would like to do. And then in the first two games, when players should be trying to prove why they should be part of a revolution, watching them toss all those plans right out the window and into the septic tank as soon as the whistle blows. It was kindergarten recess.
To look for one answer as to why the entire team is an overturned clown car falling off a cliff seems too simple on the surface. There’s a different explanation for everyone. Jaden Sancho might be paying the highest ever “Bundesliga Tax.” Christiano Ronaldo can’t move, and seeing as how he can’t get behind a defense anymore he drops deep into midfield, which gobbles up Bruno Fernandes’ space and renders him useless. We’ve seen that with the Portugal national team. Marcus Rashford has been strip-mined of all confidence and it’s not even a sure thing that he can get the correct shoe onto the correct foot. Harry Maguire was just a name the club chased and is completely ill-equipped to play in a high line. Lisandro Martinez is 4-foot-8.
But for all of this to happen at the same time, this perfect confluence of so many players dealing with form and maybe even career-killing issues suggests that yes, something is truly broken about the whole club. The obvious point is that all these players were brought in under different managers trying to play different systems, if Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had a system at all, and United is trying to make a meal with the recipe and ingredients for four or five different entrees.
Because this misshapen and pungent collection of players has gotten a couple of managers fired now, and because United has been in a malaise for so long, the common theme from observers is that there’s a sense of entitlement among the roster that has bred the laziness, lethargy, and incompetence that has caused this historic faceplant. Certainly having years of Solskjaer letting everyone do just about whatever they wanted, and having just enough talent to balance their chaotic losses with chaotic wins done on the backs of individual brilliance and nothing else, can cause a rot that will take some time to root out. And there was something amiss with players completely tuning out Ralf Ragnick last season, knowing he was just an interim appointment, and yet knowing that they were still auditioning for whoever would be taking over full-time. Perhaps their huge contracts and putrid performances convinced them they weren’t going anywhere because no one was taking them, and so it has proved.
But that can’t be all of it. It’s hard to believe Rashford, a boyhood United fan with an England place to still lock down, thinks he’s somehow satisfied. Or that Maguire is happy to be the biggest figure of fun in the league week after week simply because he cost $89 million once. Or that Fernandes is making a face about having to do anything asked after lighting the league up upon arrival. Then again, look at these results and performances. What else is there?
Obviously, the biggest problem is the Glazers, who have never instilled a cohesive plan from the top down since Sir Alex Ferguson was there to do it for them. City and Chelsea may have (or had, in the latter’s case) all the money in the world, but there was always cohesion from the owner’s box to the director of football to the manager. Same goes for Liverpool. Not only have United been throwing things at the wall for close to a decade now, but they’ve let a whole host of people do the throwing. It’s not for lack of spending, it’s the spending in every direction.
And yet still, there has to be something more, something inexplicable or unquantifiable that makes a team look like that yesterday. While it’s a huge jump from the Eredivisie to the Premier League, Ten Hag’s Ajax had a clear identity. A 4-3-3 with flowing movement. In two matches, after a full preseason where they would have drilled this every day, United’s team vomited up a massive hairball. There has to be something more when an entire team just freezes and looks like they’ve never met each other before the match. They didn’t build well, they didn’t press, and they didn’t know where their teammates or opponents were. It was unclear what they were trying to do or what they were trying to prevent. They weren’t even there.
And long may it continue.