Sunday 14 August 2022

The biggest shock after that result? The fact it is not a shock at all...

At these moments, we are supposed to have new and original things to say. Yet by now, you have heard it all before.

Yes, we know, the Glazers.

Yes, we know, United's policy and execution of recruitment baffles the life out of both their rivals and their supporters.

Yes, we know, David De Gea is not adept at playing out from the back.

Yes, we know Harry Maguire's confidence has reached a point of startling anxiety.

Yes, we know, Fred is not the Fabinho or Rodri that United require to instill balance into the team.

Yes, we know, Bruno Fernandes’ form has fallen off a cliff and he now overcompensates with a single-man press, chaotic attempts at Hollywood passing and tedious handwaving at referees, his team-mates, himself and any other being that blurs into sight.

Yes, we know, Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford flit meaninglessly in and out of games, leaving supporters envisioning only what we imagine they might be, yet it is not what they have demonstrated in front of our very eyes for over a year now.

Yes, we know, Cristiano Ronaldo's most recent episodes of self-importance have left everyone suspecting that he would rather be just about anywhere else than wearing the lime green cocktail number that qualifies as United’s new away kit.

Yes, we know Donny van de Beek only appears from the United substitute bench after the clock has passed the 80-minute mark.

So, yes, we know it all. We have heard it all. We have seen it all. And yet, somehow, each week manages to conjure a new sense of stupefying shock.

At half-time, Brentford, who had not beaten Manchester United since 1938, led their opponents. And this was more than a lead. This was 4-0 and deservedly so. And there was, in the press box, almost a numbing madness to it all. Brentford’s supporters, too, stared at one another, open-mouthed.

They taunted their United opponents, telling them they’d be “going down with the Fulham. Fulham, on two points after two games compared to United’s zero, may be offended by the comparison. Worse was to come. Erik ten Hag, the bright new hope in the United dugout, was told he’d be “sacked in the morning”. Brentford’s supporters sang the “Ole’s” as their players, this incredibly likeable, humbly acquired collection of organised and driven individuals, an XI bought for £55million compared to United’s £424million, danced around their gilded opponents. Talking of Ole’s, much more of this and we may all start to wonder whether Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (now two managers ago) was, in fact, holding United together rather than holding United back.

In the technical area, United’s new coach initially remained present, hands in pockets, shaking his head, wondering how on earth a pre-season that had yielded acclaim from players, staff and media had developed into the abject mess developing on the field. They all eat lunch together now, we were excitedly informed, and they also now turn up to work at 9am for training.

After United’s deficit extended to three goals, he sank into the shelter of the dugout, which may have been refuge from the burning sunshine in West London, or a brief retreat from the scorching spotlight of life as Manchester United manager.

The one ray of light may have been for those besieged individuals who manage the social media accounts of United’s under-performing players, as they had no shortage of time to sculpt this season’s first major sequence of apologies.

Yet even by United’s standards, this had been a staggering 25-minute ordeal, which began 10 minutes in when Josh Da Silva’s strike inexplicably squirmed past the lamentable De Gea and culminated in the 35th minute when Bryan Mbuemo applied the finishing touch to one of the most fluid and precise counter-attacking goals you might wish to see. The kind Manchester United used to score.

Now, however, they are merely passive participants and, once the immediate tremors had subsided, the latest post-mortem of a Manchester United calamity could begin. For ten Hag, that meant entering the United dressing room at half-time. In similar circumstances in Sunday League football, a coach would probably tell their team to just go out and win the second half. Somewhere in his mind, the spectre of Manchester United’s next fixture will have loomed. Liverpool, who hit United for nine goals without reply last season, career into view with all the foreboding of an asteroid. In the director’s box, United’s chief executive Richard Arnold stared on, speechless, and he probably won’t be rushing down the pub for another pint with United’s most fervent supporters any time soon.

United’s players, it should be said, were beyond pitiful after falling a goal behind, mirroring the collective breakdown that ensued on numerous occasions last season when the first whiff of setback passed their way. Whatever the tactical or technical deficiencies of the players and coaching staff may be — and there were plenty here — it is also true that United lack so many of those intangibles that define great teams. We may occasionally roll our eyes at Roy Keane’s predictable monologues, but he is correct to identify an absence of leadership, organisation, accountability and togetherness in the United line-up.

Manchester United lost their final six Premier League away games of last season, often doing so emphatically, so, in many ways, this was merely a continuation of all we have seen before. Taking this defeat into account, United have now lost seven consecutive matches on the road, conceding 21 goals and scoring only two in that sequence. ten Hag was simply witness to the kind of implosions that Solskjaer oversaw in a 5-0 defeat by Liverpool and 4-1 defeat at Watford, or which Ralf Rangnick endured in 4-0 losses at Anfield or 4-1 defeats at Manchester City.

That is not to say ten Hag’s approach was beyond reproach on this occasion. United were undone and outsmarted at set pieces. A lack of desire or a lack of planning? Christian Eriksen, his summer signing in midfield, operated as a false nine last week and was once again asked to perform a curious role, in a screening position in front of the back four. He demonstrated little of the defensive nous required in the position. In goal, ten Hag asks De Gea to provide a prowess in possession that clearly ill-befits the goalkeeper. In defence, the coach has empowered Maguire as a starter and a captain and it is difficult at this point to justify either call. Up front, ten Hag spent the entirety of pre-season preaching unity and discipline, only to restore Ronaldo, a man who appears at odds with his club and disappeared before the end of a pre-season friendly.

And, yes, we know, many of these things are, to an extent, outside of ten Hag’s control. Yet here United are again, with a cataclysm on their hands. And we can only begin to imagine the strain of panic that may now ensue as United seek to fix glaring deficiencies in the remainder of the transfer market.

On the final whistle, the scenes were wearily familiar. United's players, beaten and bowed, skulk over to the travelling fans, raising hands in a manner that now feels jarringly routine. ten Hag, for his part, stared on from the touchline, barely looking at his players as they trudged past him into the tunnel.

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