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04th Oct 2020

Man Utd’s humiliation was a result seven years in the making

Simon Lloyd

The players and manager are easy targets but the problems go much, much deeper

Not so long ago, you may recall, there was a genuine sense that Manchester United, after seven years of mediocrity, were back. A derby win just before the pandemic shut football down, then a sequence of games after it which helped United to a top four finish saw optimism surge.

This, surely, was no false dawn. For the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson – and for a sustained run of games – they played with tempo and zest. Their front three scored goals. In Bruno Fernandes, there was imagination and craft in midfield. Even the defence, though prone to the occasional error, seemed largely solid. Good times were on the horizon again, or so it seemed.

If any of that midsummer positivity still lingered around Old Trafford before kick-off on Sunday, a shambolic first-half showing against Tottenham was enough for the last of it to burn away. By full-time, where Spurs had run out 6-1 winners, such optimism felt decades ago, not mere weeks.

That Spurs won the game, in truth, was not much of a surprise. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side’s startling lack of sharpness – owed to a late start to the season and a reduced preseason schedule – was there for all to see in their opening day defeat to Crystal Palace. They were fortunate, too, that Brighton failed to make more of the opportunities they created against them a week ago. This, though, wasn’t just a defeat: it was a humiliation. The emphatic manner of the visitors’ win neatly summing up the disarray in which United find themselves.

After going a goal up from a first-minute Bruno Fernandes penalty, United’s implosion was spectacular. Within five minutes they had not only surrendered the lead, but fallen behind thanks to a mix of calamitous defending and a slick piece of finishing from Son Heung-min. They had a genuine right to feel aggrieved that Anthony Martial was sent off and Erik Lamela wasn’t after a scuffle in the penalty area, but the ease with which Spurs continued to slice through United meant a third goal was inevitable irrespective of how many red shirts were on the field. Sure enough, a third, this  time from Harry Kane, came soon enough after Martial’s dismissal. Son added a fourth before half-time. Mercifully, United only conceded two after the break. It could – and probably should – have been more.

Inevitably, TV coverage of United’s dismal showing was punctuated by regular shots of a masked Ed Woodward watching on from the Old Trafford directors’ box. It is fitting, in a way, that this result should round off a week where anger has spiked within the club’s fanbase at another botched transfer window. This was supposed to be a summer where United, buoyed by a strong finish to the last season and a return to the Champions League, would close the gap on Liverpool and Manchester City. Instead, with hours remaining, United have confirmed just one addition and are still scratching around to bring in more. Their chances of closing a widely reported deal for Jadon Sancho look increasingly remote, the club instead eyeing an eleventh-hour move for 33-year-old free agent Edinson Cavani. A squad which already looked painfully shallow is barely any stronger at all.

While the supporters’ ire is understandable, you wonder, too, how unsettling Woodward and co.’s failings in the transfer market have been for the current squad. Luke Shaw’s open admission that the squad needed arrivals – mentioned by Gary Neville during commentary – was, perhaps, a window into the general sense of uncertainty that exists amongst the players. Not that this exonerates any of them from what unfolded on Sunday afternoon.

As for Solskjaer, such a thrashing is likely to generate a fresh wave of questions as to whether he is the man to lead United clear of the post-Ferguson gloom. On this showing, he is not. Repeatedly, United were vulnerable throughout the first-half and haemorrhaged chances, just as they did in their previous two Premier League outings. Solskjaer had no answer, no way of stemming the flow. There is no doubt that Mauricio Pochettino was better qualified for the United job when the Norwegian was given it on a permanent basis. There is no doubt that the former Spurs’ boss’ name will be linked with his position again should things not improve swiftly.

And yet, all this said, we can go back to those few weeks after the lockdown and remember the way in which United – Solskjaer’s United – looked on the cusp of something special. With the signings he should have had but is now unlikely to get, perhaps they would have posed a serious threat to the Liverpool-City duopoly this season. For all his perceived shortcomings as a manager, in those few weeks he had shown enough of a glimpse of what his United could be. He had done enough to be backed, not hung out to dry by the blundering shitshow tasked with trying to close the club’s transfer dealings.

It has long been patently clear that all of United’s problems can be traced back – directly or indirectly – to the Glazer family and the people they allow to run the club on their behalf. Even on days like this, where United’s players are clearly outclassed on the pitch, where questions are raised about their manager’s suitability for the job, fingers should be pointed in the direction of Florida and to the finance men in the directors’ box. This was the product of their failings as much as Solskjaer and his players. It is on them that United are following another forwards stride with a backwards step.

This was a result seven years in the making.