It wasn’t supposed to be like this for Manchester United. Second last season in the Premier League thanks to their manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer doing an impressive job, United signed Raphael Varane, Jadon Sancho and Cristiano Ronaldo over the summer. Optimism rose among fans. They felt that a first title challenge since 2013 was possible. United’s squad was now packed with world-class names and fans at Britain’s best supported club would be back to cheer them along the way.
It has not happened. United have just suffered a horrific run of form, picking up one point from the last 12 in the league. Leicester City put four past United last week, Liverpool five this. That’s Liverpool, United's biggest rivals. Liverpool for whom United felt they had prepared well. The players felt confident in their roles, in their game plan. They didn’t have to worry about being blockaded in their hotel either like the last time Liverpool came to Old Trafford.
United were destroyed, the game plan quickly exposed by Jurgen Klopp’s ruthless side and support for Solskjaer has taken a nose dive among United’s support.
United can’t keep clean sheets, keep going behind in games, look unbalanced and unable to control matches. Some of the best players from last season have become the worst this. The team doesn’t look like one, more a jigsaw of players that have been scattered incoherently and are yet to fit together. Solskjaer has the best intentions but he’s struggling to get a tune out of his talent.
Sunday against Liverpool was the nadir. Defenders didn’t defend, goalscorers didn’t score, midfielders were outclassed. United’s great names were outthought and outfought by Liverpool from the start.
Not since May 1990 have United been 4-0 down at half time in a league game, and that was an end-of-season match against Nottingham Forest which barely mattered. The 4-2 defeat to Liverpool at Old Trafford at the end of last season barely mattered either. United had done enough to finish above Liverpool in the league.
Sunday mattered. This season was still young enough to atone for errors. Win against Liverpool and United would have only been a point behind the Reds in the table. But anyone watching that game knows Liverpool are so far ahead of United right now they’re likely to disappear into the distance. On this form, United will be fortunate to be also rans, to finish in the top four. The team are being outplayed so often that Solskjaer’s future is under intense scrutiny. Villarreal and Atalanta were far better in the first half at Old Trafford in the Champions League, yet United roared back and beat both. That’s proving more difficult in the Premier League and fans are alarmed. They’re tired of trite promises from some of the players, tired of Solskjaer talking of heart and passion and United’s DNA. Words don’t cut it any more, though he has little opportunity but to keep talking since he’s contractually obliged to do so. The Norwegian can say nothing to heal the wounds of defeat.
United have recovered from hammerings before. Tottenham beat Solskjaer's United 6-1 a year ago - the worst result under the Norwegian's watch, yet Sunday is much worse. Spurs was a freak result and United finished well clear of them; Liverpool was coming.
In September 1989, Alex Ferguson went to bed after a 5-1 defeat at Manchester City and hoped that if he did wake up, it would all have been a dream. After Liverpool had scored five and their 3,000 travelling fans had mocked Solskjaer by singing ‘Ole’s at the wheel’ or ‘Ole give us a wave’, Solskjaer came out of the dressing room and posed for photos with fans outside the Stretford End: mostly younger or weekend visitors hoping to take a rare chance to see those they idolise. The majority had long left the stadium in disappointment or disgust, let down by those players they’d supported so well.
Liverpool winning wasn’t a surprise and neither would it be if champions Manchester City won in United’s next home game in two weeks. These are grim times and Solskjaer, usually an optimist, admitted his team are at rock bottom.
He’s a good man, a proud man, a very well renumerated man who is trying but failing in his job right now. His players are too, but Solskjaer knows he ultimately holds responsibility. This is on him and football is a results business. He’s not getting points, has won no trophies and it’s hard to see a way back for him from this, though United have stuck by him with a loyalty which would be unheard of at major European rivals. As egos jockey for position in the dressing room, United have so far shown no inclination to change their manager and the club genuinely believed in a plan, in their cultural reboot, in increased investment in youth. They believed it would pay dividends in playing success. Instead, the prevailing mood is one of doom and despair and defeat. If he can come back from this it’ll be his most momentous act in his long association with Manchester United, though in the past he has managed it when at his lowest ebb. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.