Most of us have known this feeling. At playgrounds and classrooms, backyards and alleyways, nothing hurts more than a bully taking their sweet time to pull you apart. On his podcast, Gary Neville invoked the parallel of a boxer teasing their opponent for twelve full rounds, making them feel all possible kinds of pain, before landing the knockout punch.
To that end, last night must have been traumatic for Manchester United. The destruction they received at the hands of Liverpool was probably easier on the soul in comparison. That evening left United in a big, simmering cauldron of shock. What Manchester City dished out last evening was cold and agonising. They exposed every single flaw in United’s structure, defensive or attacking, and kept drilling in the message that they could land more blows if they wanted to, but were holding out because they would rather play out an elaborate rondo at Old Trafford. That stuff is painful.
The apology messages began right after full-time. Those emoji-filled captions on social media are rarely ever heartfelt, but David de Gea must have meant it when he wrote: “I am hurt.” Anyone would be. The hurt which stems from public humiliation rankles the most.
The three weeks between the last and this international break has been unforgiving for Manchester United. They have played Leicester, Atalanta home and away, Liverpool, Spurs and City. Most well-drilled teams would like these matches to be spread out over a longer time. United were coming off a run of two wins in six games, where they looked vulnerable to any sort of structure and organisation.
During Solskjaer’s first season and a half as United manager, it was fun to see his players profit from the spaces other teams left behind their defensive lines. United were building back from a city of debris, so the low-block-to-counter strategy was understandable. Since the beginning of last season, as world-class players have come in, as expectations have proportionately risen, Solskjaer has found himself in a fragile fork between optimising for resources and playing to the gallery. He has often tried to do too much of the latter, without adequate players or plans. The predictable recoil forces him to run back to the middle, which leaves him short on both sides. That team he put out against City did not stand a tactical or technical chance of controlling the match.
Even the mid-table teams in the Premier League, all capable of giving the best teams a run for their money, have found joy against Manchester United. This season, United’s bulging gap with Liverpool, Manchester City, and Chelsea has shown as starkly as the shrinking distance with Aston Villa, Everton, Leicester, Wolves, and Southampton.
The scene is just as grim in cup competitions. United have played four Champions League matches. They lost to Young Boys, needed two rescue acts against Atalanta, and were remarkably fortunate to land anything against Villarreal. West Ham United knocked them out in their opening round of the EFL Cup.
While writing an objective report on any team, you look for rays of hope. What are the logs of wood that United can latch on to? Who can they build their team around? Right now, the skies are as dark as the night. That we are talking in this tone just eleven league games into the season would be unacceptable for even a team battling relegation. Manchester United are letting this continue because there are too many fires to put out and too few people who have the eye for spotting the correct combustion points.
In such situations, most gazes tend to point at the manager. When the team has been given ample resources for renovation, the spotlight is par for the course. There are, admittedly, a lot of things about United that should land on the manager’s doorstep. But the players would know that they haven’t helped the team’s cause in any way. There is a basic threshold of performance that every athlete must demand of themselves irrespective of who is sitting beyond the touchline. Manchester United’s players look worryingly distant from those standards this season.
Their reactions won’t tell you that though. A video of De Gea angrily punching the tunnel has become viral since last night. It would be hilarious if the situation at United wasn’t so dire. A minute before that clip was filmed, De Gea forgot how to punch a ball and allowed Bernardo Silva’s poke to sneak in at the near post. Not that it is ever okay to concede a goal, but United could have used a 0-1 scoreline at half-time to regroup. The way City were playing, 2-0 became an excuse to play out the second-half like it was a training session. After the match, Guardiola was asked why he did not make a single substitution. “It was 2-0 and so comfortable.”
We now go into the international break. On the other side, another scary run of fixtures awaits. Unless there is a remarkable change of attitude, the script will play out like this. Bruno Fernandes and Harry Maguire will speak about looking into the mirror. Cristiano Ronaldo will tell us that it is time to stick together and work hard. Luke Shaw will talk about teamwork. Sir Alex Ferguson will be found telling someone that Cristiano should have won every Ballon d’Or from the time he was born. He will add that Ole is the right man for the job because he is a great lad. United will probably beat Watford. Bruno will talk about a changing atmosphere. Solskjaer, himself, will throw phrases like positive energy and passion in the post-match interviews. Cristiano, coming off a brace and another display of those iron-moulded abs, will talk about his achievements. Sir Alex will clap at his words.
As an observer, you will see Villarreal and Chelsea away in the following week, and think that one point out of six would be an acceptable return.
From top to bottom, this group is completely distant from reality, unaware of the importance of silent, focussed work. The institutional hubris has sunk in so deep, they almost fool themselves into believing that the United crest is a pass for winning football matches. Every time they sneak in a last-gasp winner, they spew nonsense about DNA. All this while, television pundits on Sky and BT will not ask, even once, why a self-proclaimed good team needs so many last-minute winners.
Given the popularity Solskjaer enjoys within the United establishment, it is unlikely that he will be shown the door anytime soon. It is fair, in a way. The man who took United forward from a period of total mess deserves patience when things go sideways. Secondly, the lack of a clear replacement option makes any radical decision look so much more fragile.
These factors will help Solskjaer get an extra run of games in which to prove his worth, but he has little chance if the echo chamber he resides in does not ask the right questions. To escape recurring hurt, United’s decision-makers must barge into the dressing room and hold the leaders accountable for the performances. Ask them questions about the ideas that are running this place.
Something like Who plays a 3-5-2 against a team with two waves of technically strong wide players? would be a good start. It could be followed by Which international defender and club captain makes so many elementary errors over two weeks?
Acceptance precedes change. Does anything about Manchester United tell you that they have accepted the problems everyone else can so clearly see?