Manchester United, the 20-time English champions, are guaranteed to finish with their lowest points tally of the Premier League era and can no longer qualify for the Champions League.
t comes after yet another humiliating defeat, this time to Brighton, with the deficiencies right across the team becoming even more evident with each passing game.
The four goals United conceded in an hour at Brighton took them to 56, their worst Premier League total and their worst at all since 1978/’79, when Stewart Houston and Tom Connell were getting games.
Interim manager Ralf Rangnick admitted this season has been a “disaster”, condemned Saturday’s lamentable performance as “humiliating . . . unacceptable” and apologised to the fans.
The Sussex shambles was an individual and collective defensive failure from the moment Alex Telles’ feeble header enabled Brighton’s opener, which went through Victor Lindelof’s legs.
The second goal was even more blood curdling. Not for the first or last time, Diogo Dalot failed to rouse himself to track back as the effervescent Leandro Trossard sauntered to the byline.
When the Belgian squared for Marc Cucurella to shoot, rather than risk life, limb or even a challenge, Lindelof turned his back in the manner of a nesh child confronted by the school bully. If running away was an option, he surely would have taken it.
If Dalot and Telles were the disasters which nobody needed to wait for to happen and Lindelof is the answer to nobody’s question, United have transformed Raphael Varane from one of Europe’s most elegant centre backs into one for whom the basics are a step too far.
Varane’s most eye-catching contribution was a wretched, casual slice of Robert Sanchez’s hoof forwards, which set up Danny Welbeck to shoot over David De Gea’s bar.
Where to start? The eighth minute, when Juventus-bound Nemanja Matic sized up his options from the centre circle, before rolling the ball out of play? The 17th minute when Cristiano Ronaldo intelligently ran into space down the inside left channel, only for Dalot to wallop a pass into the untended prairies of the inside right channel?
The 54th minute when Bruno Fernandes spotted two United players running into space, before playing the ball behind them both? The list goes on and on . . .
In theory, United were set up to protect and expand with Matic and Scott McTominay holding the centre in front of the back four, freeing Fernandes, Juan Mata and Anthony Elanga to service Ronaldo. In practice, United lacked bite, creativity and application.
Matic, who, mentally at least, was on the plane for Turin and an out-of-his-depth McTominay were overrun by the rampaging Moises Caicedo and the brutally effective Yves Bissouma. Fernandes was petulant and peripheral; never lightning quick, Mata lacks anything approaching pace these days; Elanga was outmuscled at every turn of his 45-minute Calvary.
Without a dominant figure capable of evoking memories of Alex Ferguson’s teams where almost everyone from Ronny Johnsen to Roy Keane thrived on responsibility while jostling for individual leadership roles, the United of 2022 is akin to a gaggle of dysfunctional divorcees squabbling over the crockery as their house burns.
Shoulders slumped, head permanently shaking, hands welded to hips, nominal captain Fernandes berated Telles, who had crossed (poorly, of course) rather than return an early pass.
Fernandes was still berating him an hour later after Solly March had waltzed through, unchallenged by the Brazilian yet again.
With no sense of camaraderie, Lindelof screamed so long and loudly at Dalot’s sloppy positioning for a free-kick that the Swede found himself out of contention when the kick was taken. United’s kids were cowed, but the old hands failed to step up.
Mata, so often United’s joybringer, was almost as joyless as the rest, although his commitment remains beyond question, while Ronaldo’s eye-rolling and rueful smiles were arguably his major contributions.
Ronaldo’s evening was summed up by a first-half free-kick from the edge of the area which, after all the trademark cheek-puffing and shoulder-flexing, ended up in row z to the giddy home faithful’s malicious delight.
Edinson Cavani added a soupcon of oomph in the second half, but adding irony to insult, only when centre half Harry Maguire was introduced late on did United seriously threaten.
United seemed taken by surprise when Brighton attacked through wing-backs March and Cucurella, as they have for much of the season. Dalot and Telles may be poster boys for this feeble United team, but the hapless pair were offered no meaningful support. In contrast, Trossard and Pascal Gross formed unstoppable tag-teams with their wingbacks.
At half-time, Rangnick withdrew two midfielders and, in a move he confessed to regretting, switched to 4-4-2, leaving the major issue his team faced unchallenged. As a result, Brighton scored three in the 15 minutes after the re-start. To add to the end of term feel for Brighton, their manager Graham Potter conducted the crowd’s “we want five”. For United, it felt like the end of days.
It may be forgotten as United pick over the rubble of the subsequent fiasco, but before kick-off, with the starting XI unchanged following victory over Brentford, the travelling fans were at their most loudly encouraging. Soon, though, they were howling at their own players and the Glazers while eulogising Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
A couple of wholly inappropriate flares were a reminder of the lack of flair on the pitch, but when Mata was substituted he walked in front of the United section and received only applause. After the final whistle, showing rather more defiance than he had before it, Dalot stood facing the hordes as they chanted “you’re not fit to wear the shirt”. If anything summed up United’s evening it was this. (©Telegraph Media Group Ltd 2022)
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