Yesterday, Manchester United suffered their worst defeat in the modern era. They suffered it at the hands of their most bitter rivals. The shame at the full-time whistle offered the starkest of contrasts from 90 minutes earlier, when the Red Devils lined up proudly, having won their first silverware in six years, being on an unbeaten run and still competing in every competition they had entered.
Nobody saw coming the ignominy that was to follow.
After the match, manager Erik ten Hag said “I have [had in the past] some that are the bad days. But also [they] are the days if you do the right things, if you react with the right measures as a manager and as a team, you can learn a lot from it and can strengthen your mentality.”
But what are the lessons to be learned here?
After the 4-0 defeat by Brentford at the start of the season, Ten Hag cancelled his squad’s day off and made them run the 15km that they had covered less than their opponents. But at this stage in the season, with matches coming thick and fast, extra training could make tired legs even more tired. It could turn niggling injuries into match-missing ones. It is surely not the solution this time.
Ten Hag spent the closing section of the match on the touchline, glowering at his team. He said he was “analys[ing] the performance of my team, how is their approach, how is their character, how is their mentality, how do they cooperate together, how do they deal with the setbacks? Look at the body language, how they communicate with each other.”
Will he detect specific culprits who were left wanting? Are there imposters in this team of “mentality monsters” who are really sheep in wolves’ clothing?
The fact is that this was a team collapse. Nobody played well, everybody lost their heads. When any team starts to feel invincible, going two or three down comes as a shock. We have seen that many times before. But when that shock is suffered by players who have taken to the pitch 43 times already by early March, plus taken part in a World Cup, then there are no reserves of fighting spirit left to draw on. The physical tank was on low yesterday, but the mental tank was on empty.
Yesterday’s result was an accident waiting to happen, brought about by the thinness of the United squad. It is just more than a shame that the accident occurred on Merseyside.
Graeme Souness might be an irritating, bitter has-been, but he was not wrong when he said yesterday “they’ve been getting away with it.” United were nowhere near their best in last Sunday’s Carabao Cup final, but carved out a win. They were not at their best against West Ham in midweek, but again pulled a rabbit out of the hat. They were already flagging. This was a bridge too far.
United’s owners, the Glazers, via director of football John Murtough, argued that the massive summer spend on Antony, Casemiro, Lisandro Martinez and Tyrell Malacia had not only exhausted the summer transfer budget, but the winter one as well. Their arrival, plus those of Christian Eriksen on a free, was deemed to have supported Ten Hag sufficiently.
But nobody seems to question how the manager was supposed to cope when man for man, his squad had been vastly depleted compared to last season. Five came in, but Pogba, Matic, Lingard, Cavani, Ronaldo, Pereira and Chong all went out. Ignoring loans such as Telles, Bailly, Amad and Henderson, that’s two players fewer on the books and when two midfielders – Eriksen and Donny van de Beek – picked up long-term injuries, even then, no money was made available.
It is obviously a stretch to blame the Glazers for a 7-0 defeat, but without exonerating the players for their capitulation, the context should not be forgotten.
And if yesterday was, in that sense, the outcome of trying to play too many games with too small a squad, what does Ten Hag do now? With a crucial Europa League tie against Real Betis to come, it’s no time to blood youngsters. And with Champions League qualification at stake, he cannot rest too many against Southampton on Sunday either.
So the manager needs to make a statement and to do that, he needs to make an example of someone. And that should be a goalkeeper who as we noted earlier, in a 7-0 defeat, made his first save in the 81st minute, who did not rush out once, whose normally poor distribution was shocking, and who at no point was seen trying to motivate, organise or chastise the crumbling defence ahead of him.
It may be unfair to lay all the blame on the keeper for yesterday’s result, but there must be some reaction from the manager to the result. And if the world’s highest paid goalkeeper faced eight shots on target and let seven of them in, then there needs to be accountability.