Sir Alex Ferguson was at the Etihad on Sunday but not Goodison Park on Saturday. Ferguson is too craven to speak out against the owners of Manchester United, still a paying employer and where he has a row of seats in the directors’ box, and he has long known actions speak louder than words.
If Mancunian schoolchildren went to City one week and United the next, as they did in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, they might have thought they were watching a different sport. City’s 2-2 draw with Liverpool was a culture shock for anyone subjected to watching United on a weekly basis, becoming as torturous as Alex’s therapy in A Clockwork Orange.
City and Liverpool play at a pace that suggests they are on fast-forward. The football is fabulous but just as striking is the work ethic. Every player in those teams strives to justify their starting role every week.
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It is going to be a long six weeks for United supporters. That’s how long they have until the season ends and beyond the Premier League calendar, there may be a City or Liverpool FA Cup and Champions League final appearances to stomach.
United players do not have the stomach for a lunchtime kick-off at relegation fodder. A cardboard sign was strapped to a pole outside Carrington on Sunday. ‘Embarrassing s–tbags’ it read. “Not fit to wear the shirt get out of our club!!”
“My gut feeling is they struggled with the expectation,” Ralf Rangnick opined. Where to start with that? At 0-0, Evertonians were looking to pick a fight with Dominic Calvert-Lewin or Michael Keane, seemingly resigned to their fate. They clearly hadn’t watched United much. Anthony Gordon scored in only the 27th minute and the contest effectively ended then.
The Goodison roar can carry so far it causes ripples in the Stanley Park lake but it was not that loud. It was clear in October many United players had been rumbled by the return of crowds and a tepid Goodison might as well have been the Ali Sami Yen Stadium.
The number of truly committed players in the United squad does not break double figures. There are nine, at the most. The worst Everton team in 20 years won essentially because they had more committed players.
United do have a playing style – the surrender style, devoid almost entirely of intensity. Rangnick stressed on Friday United had been ‘aggressive’ in training, as if it was a departure from the norm. Typically, it was absent on matchday.
“Even in the first 25 minutes, when we were in control, I wished we were more aggressive, keener to win second balls and pin them back,” Rangnick said. “We didn’t do that.”
Rangnick has presided over a meagre nine wins in 22 games. His legacy (if there is one) was always going to be transfers rather than tactics and he is as impressive an analyst as he is unimpressive a manager. Anybody could have surmised that given Rangnick had managed 81 games in 10 years before United tasked him with salvaging fourth place.
The current occupants are a club who also sacked their manager earlier in the season. Tottenham’s hire was permanent and elite. United would not have got away with an inactive winter window under Antonio Conte and the arrivals of Dejan Kulusevski and Rodrigo Bentancur could be decisive.
Whatever the understandable reservations United had about Conte, it is not a coincidence they are looking up at him in the table. At United, if anything can go wrong it will go wrong.
The dressing room was too weak and too fractured for an interim appointment and United effectively tossed off the season before Santa got stuck in the chimney.
Saturday was nearly three years on from the biblical 4-0 thrashing on Easter Sunday at the same ground. “The basic ingredients in a team performance are running, desire and fitness,” Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said that day. “If you want to play at this club it has to mean more. I want my team to be the hardest-working team in the league.” United are still failing in all five disciplines.
“The comments and shouts in our end were reminiscent of those from April 2019,” one United fan messaged. Another stood in the Bullen Stand messaged: “I’m sick of them. Sick to f—–g death of them. And RR needs to go tomorrow.” In almost 30 years of watching United, this is the worst period watching United in my lifetime and easily the worst covering them.
In the guise of objective troubleshooter, Rangnick could yet be pivotal. Provided United have not killed the romantic in Erik ten Hag and he is still prepared to risk his reputation, he would have to be prepared to puncture the inflated air of entitlement some players have developed. A concern for the next manager stepping into the Carrington dressing room is whether they have the character to handle the egomaniacs in a squad of serial underachievers.
The next manager is perhaps already compromised. Darren Fletcher, the technical director and also on the coaching staff, has willingly massaged these egos. A colleague who spoke to Fletcher on the eve of last season noticed his tone on United had softened when he had his foot on the ladder and he has climbed a long way up it since.
Fletcher needs to step off the Carrington training pitches and return to the directors’ box, where John Murtough was sat on Saturday. Peter Schmeichel, delusionally pro-Solskjaer before suggesting Steve Bruce as a caretaker replacement, was cosying up to Richard Arnold.
Ferguson was nowhere to be seen.