By the time the final whistle blew at Villa Park on Sunday evening, the temptation was to laugh and shrug and write off the previous nine hours as just one of those days.
Freakishness can breed freakishness as though the forces of chaos, once out of the cage, can be very hard to recapture. Manchester United had been hammered at home! By Tottenham! Liverpool had been battered away! West Ham had won a second game in a row! The temptation perhaps was to repeat the lie that in the Premier League anybody can beat anybody on their day. Or, more realistically, consideration was perhaps given to the extent to which the breakdown of order this autumn has been caused by fatigue, a lack of preparation time and the absence of fans.
United’s defeat, though, was not like Liverpool’s. It’s true the riskiness of Liverpool’s approach has been highlighted recently and that, whether you regard that as sloppiness or a necessary gamble, a defensive collapse, even if not quite of that magnitude, didn’t come totally without warning. But still, the 7-2 defeat at Aston Villa was a genuine shock and there is the (tenuous) mitigation that they were without their captain, the forward who leads their press and their first-choice goalkeeper.
United’s performance, by contrast, was just who they are. On the first weekend of October last year, on a similarly wet Sunday, they went to Newcastle, played without any verve or cohesion and lost 1-0, meaning they had collected fewer points from their first eight games than in any of the previous 30 seasons. Has anything really changed?
The squad is better. Bruno Fernandes and Donny van de Beek are extremely good footballers, even if Fernandes is not the universal panacea he may have appeared in June. Mason Greenwood’s emergence is cause for excitement.
The left-back Alex Telles should arrive from Porto on Monday – although he could hardly be blamed for having second thoughts – but the other talk was of Edinson Cavani and a loan for Ousmane Dembélé. They’re all very fine players, but they feel somewhere between an irrelevance and a distraction. You can have the best lamps in the world, but the lighthouse isn’t going to work if you don’t have a rock to build it on. You also need a lighthouse keeper.
Manchester United are the third-wealthiest club in the world by revenue. They could essentially afford whomever they wanted. Yet they have appointed their manager based on the fact he scored an important goal for them 21 years ago. His evident niceness made him a useful caretaker after the sullen tempestuousness of José Mourinho (none of whose four best results at Old Trafford have come in his two and a bit years as United manager).
He can set up a team to sit deep with rapid forwards to counter, but what evidence is there he can instil the structured attacking or pressing that are such an essential part of elite modern football? You don’t have to be invested in the Ole’s-at-the-wheel nonsense to look at the sad blue eyes in the sad grey face and feel sympathy, but ask this: after what happened at Cardiff, would any other Premier League club have appointed him?
United were outplayed by Crystal Palace, they were outplayed by Brighton and they were outplayed by Tottenham. But Sunday was the worst by far. This was a performance as bad as the 5-0 defeat at Palace on another rain-sodden afternoon in December 1972. That, like this, was a game in which all the mismanagement and toxicity at the club were exposed on the pitch. Then too a feckless, listless, rudderless side were sliced apart by gleeful opponents who could hardly believe their luck.
In the first half on Sunday United were disgraceful in their lethargy and in the second they were disgraceful in their petulance. They were so bad Anthony Martial’s red card was a footnote, confirmation of a pettishness also manifested in Paul Pogba’s rake of Pierre-Emile Højbjerg’s calf and Luke Shaw’s appalling lunge on Lucas Moura.
The worst thing was not the shapelessness – although that is an increasing problem. It was the total lack of care, the irresponsibility, and that comes from the top. Solskjær is not the only problem at the club, he may not even be the biggest problem at the club, but he is the one most easily fixed. This was the performance of a team devoid of leadership. No manager who has authority or the respect of his players or his peers is patted on the head at the final whistle as Solskjær was by Mourinho.
Mauricio Pochettino is still out there, available. Sooner or later he will be appointed by a big club. Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid have pre-existing interest and it’s far from inconceivable Manchester City could line him up as a replacement for Pep Guardiola. Or if not, he may get bored waiting and take a job in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, or China. Getting the manager right is far more important than messing about with face-saving deals for ageing Uruguayan strikers or inconsistent French forwards who have been available for weeks, last-minute PR fixes for a failure of recruitment.
Not all five-goal defeats are equal. What happened at Old Trafford on Sunday felt far more like Selhurst Park 1972 than Villa Park 2020. It was the culmination of a miserable decline. Even with the talent in United’s squad, rebuilding will take time and, unfortunately for Solskjær, it begins with him.