If Manchester United were concerned about Gary Neville’s opinions before Sunday’s game with Tottenham, presumably they are now terrified.
The club were said to be frustrated with Neville, and other former Red Devils stars, for creating an air of negativity about their transfer business. “Inflammatory” and “disturbing” were the words United used, as reported by the Mirror.
How appropriate, then, that Ed Woodward was in the stands to watch the first half against Spurs at Old Trafford, a record-breaking 45 minutes of utter and abject humiliation that will have disturbed the executive vice-chairman to his core, and maybe imminent new signings Edinson Cavani and Alex Telles, too.
The manner of United’s collapse after a second-minute Bruno Fernandes penalty was something not seen at this venue since a 6-1 hammering by Manchester City under Alex Ferguson nine years ago, the last time they conceded this many in a league game. The defensive problems laid bare at Brighton and Hove Albion, when a 3-2 win was built on the opposition hitting the woodwork a record five times, were back in the freak-show spotlight. This was a 6-1 home defeat, remarkable, horrible, and familiar.
3 – Manchester United have conceded six goals in a single Premier League game for only the third time – with each coming in October (1996 v Southampton, 2011 v Man City, today v Spurs). Scary. #MUNTOT pic.twitter.com/w8bFgFpt5c
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) October 4, 2020
First, Eric Bailly – ushered in for the under-fire Victor Lindelof – and £80million Harry Maguire contrived to set up Tanguy Ndombele for an equaliser, two sad clowns playing a game of head tennis with a tragic ending where Maguire pulled over Luke Shaw. The club captain then pushed over Harry Kane and let him take a quick free-kick, Son racing through to put Spurs ahead with seven minutes gone.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was nonplussed, his team apparently set on self-destruction, maybe as a show of solidarity towards Neville, Patrice Evra and others who are worried, as ever, about the direction of the club. Erik Lamela sensed as much, the Spurs winger flinging an arm into Anthony Martial’s face and getting a brush from a gloved hand in return. Referee Anthony Taylor saw fit to send off only the Frenchman.
When Bailly’s poor pass to Nemanja Matic let Kane score the third, when Luke Shaw literally ran away from danger to give Son the fourth, when Serge Aurier smashed in the fifth and Pogba laughed at conceding the penalty for Kane to make it six, you truly began to wonder whether this was orchestrated embarrassment. It was The United Way as viewed through a hall of mirrors, a twisted, unsettling commitment to entertaining football, to making sure their worst display under Solskjaer was at least memorable. Jose Mourinho, a survivor of the Old Trafford transfer-window chaos, allowed himself the smallest of smiles at 6-1. He certainly won’t forget this.
Shaw was outspoken about the need to bring in reinforcements and ironically it is he who will suffer for it, his appalling display and the imminent arrival of Telles from Porto putting his place in the team in serious doubt. Cavani, too, can at least expect immediate football upon arrival if Martial is banned for three matches.
This game did not show what United need in the market; the watching world already knew a centre-back and a wide forward at least are necessary. It is also nothing new to see the club scrambling around for cheap deals before the deadline, weeks after rivals have got their squads in place, as onlookers wonder why this has been allowed to happen yet again.
5 – Jose Mourinho is the first manager to face a side he’s formerly managed in the @PremierLeague away from home and score five goals since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer vs Cardiff in Dec 2018 (5-1). Medicine. pic.twitter.com/0eevr2xQ2i
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) October 4, 2020
A chief concern was the surrender itself, at the start of a season that threatens to become a nightmare. A team that went 19 games unbeaten from January 26 to July 19 now looks as brittle as it ever did during Mourinho’s poisonous final few weeks in charge two years ago. A defence that conceded the third-fewest goals in the league last season has let in 11 in the first three games, the worst numbers since they were relegated in 1930-31. A team that finished third in the league and reached three semi-finals this year look less like title challengers than Everton.
Still the errors persist across the pitch, still Pogba infuriates with every other languid step, still they tire as matches wear on, even against opponents playing a fourth game in seven days. Still, too, there are players at the club shirking responsibility as the clamour for new blood grows deafening, nearly 18 months after a 4-0 loss at Everton that had Solskjaer promising to cut away the dead wood. Why should anyone expect change now?
Cavani and Telles are not bad signings, but they are deals borne out of panic, a desperate attempt for appeased pundits and positive hashtags. They are joining a circus, but at least it’s one that never fails to entertain.