Manchester United’s meat-grinding of talent continues to show

<span>Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

So low is faith in Manchester United, it came as little surprise to see them teeter. Two goals up and cruising, then two Newport goals and lurching, this is Manchester United 2024, much like the Manchester United of the past 10 years.

Even if they did escape back across the Welsh border in relief, there are still many more miles to travel, the gains required infinitely larger than marginal if greatness is to return. Even when visiting Newport, 16th in League Two, swapping cava glasses and prawn sandwiches for styrofoam cups and sizzling onions, United cannot be relied upon for serenity.

Related: Manchester United given huge scare by Newport County before Antony strikes

Just like Sir Dave Brailsford, in attendance at Rodney Parade, and his top-to-bottom United audit, there are big plans for a South Wales club that has had hard – and yet harder – times. For Big Sir Jim Ratcliffe and Ineos read Huw Jenkins and County, the former Swansea chairman fronting a takeover. A televised replay would have done nicely for starters. It remained possible until the very dying seconds when Rasmus Højlund celebrated with a vigour that reflected an individual’s previous frustrations within a team that had previously done so little to serve him.

The talk of the town had been of County fans paying £400 a ticket. Manchester United might honk of faded grandeur and a rotten core but they are, after all, Manchester United. Besides, this Manchester United will always offer up the smell of blood.

Altay Bayindir, clad in tights, was making his debut, the United goalkeeper’s jersey on short loan now that André Onana’s Africa Cup of Nations – vital statistics of one match, no saves, two bust‑ups and at least one private jet – is over. Bayindir was barracked by home fans from the warmup onwards but someone bred within the bearpits of Turkish football ought not to have been too distracted. This was not even his first time in Wales; in Cardiff during the Euro qualifiers in November his saves had denied Rob Page’s team automatic qualification.

Saves from Will Evans, and a reading of James Clarke’s looping header, suggested few nerves, but then came Newport’s goal through Bryn Morris, deflected off Lisandro Martínez and beyond the goalkeeper’s reach. Within two minutes of the second half’s restart, Evans’s low finish was in the net. The young Turk was riding out his first Manchester United rodeo.

Bayindir besides, Erik ten Hag’s team selection was almost certainly made to avoid being “sacked in the morning” as home fans loudly predicted, those chants ever louder after Evans’s goal. Marcus Rashford’s latest absence is a mystery wrapped up as an “internal matter”. Martínez and Luke Shaw in defence and Casemiro partnering Kobbie Mainoo in midfield for the first time since last summer’s tour suggested otherwise first-team strength, belt and braces to prevent Sir Jim and Sir Dave coming to quick decisions on the manager’s future.

All was calm as Bruno Fernandes’s opener quietened the crowd, Newport’s defenders dragged across by an overload. The same happened when Diogo Dalot set up Mainoo for his first‑ever United strike. Both were the overload-plus-cutback template of goal United attempt to score every week in the Premier League and usually fail. The United fans, spread across a temporary stand that pushed the attendance towards 10,000, did not celebrate those early goals too excitedly. To receive a ticket to see United play in South Wales required the attendance of just about every other game this season, and with it the knowledge of just how capable they are of soiling themselves.

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In a weekend of post-mortems for Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool, the German’s ability to make the best of his club’s recruitment comes by such sharp contrast to United’s continued meat-grinding of talent. Of an all-blond attacking trio at Rodney Parade, at least Alejandro Garnacho is not yet gripped by the torpor that has enveloped so many United signings. Though until his goal, Højlund looked much like the latest victim.

As Newport, having made their comeback, excitedly pushed on towards making genuine history, they left space at the back. Højlund raged into the dusk when Garnacho blazed a cross beyond his reach. Antony, at the back post, was meanwhile nowhere to be found. At least he was there for United’s third, nerve-soothing goal, scored with the Brazilian’s lesser-spotted right foot.

Like Højlund later on, Antony’s celebration suggested personal vindication, a further hint that Manchester United 2024 are made up of players thinking first for themselves, rather than the team, or the club beyond that. Perhaps it is from there that the rebuild can begin.