Scientists can’t quite agree on how long it will be until the universe ends. The most trigger-happy astrophysicists have it at around 22bn years, but if we’re lucky it could keep chugging away for 200bn. Earth has slightly less time – becoming a burnt-out lifeless rock in about 5bn, after the sun runs out of fuel and enters what’s known as its “red giant phase”.
Which brings us to Manchester United – who appeared to run out of fuel in 2013. As a gaunt, expressionless Erik ten Hag stood in his technical area at Old Trafford on Sunday, it was hard not to feel that this Groundhog Day paint-by-numbers crisis might be put out of its misery only by the demise of the entire planet.
Within seconds of the full-time whistle the memes began. Complete this sentence: The biggest problem at Manchester United is …
Where do you start? Should we create a Microsoft Word template just below “create your own CV” with a simple go-to list that you save as a PDF or print out and keep? A simple, effective service that you can refer to every time there’s an issue at the Theatre of Dreams.
The first thing to mention is DNA. Divide everyone into those who “really understand” the DNA of the club, and those that don’t – including some blithe mentions of attacking football, of taking the game to the opposition and of turning Old Trafford into a “fortress”.
At which point the camera must pan to Sir Alex Ferguson in the stands.
You can imagine United conceding an early goal at home to Sturm Graz in the opening game of the European Super League Division 2 in the year 2047. The 50-year-old Scott McTominay, parachuted in as head coach after a mid-table Championship finish in charge of Reading, shakes his head. The TV director calls for a closeup of the 105-year-old Sir Alex. He looks on glumly.
It took 17 minutes for the camera to land on Fergie’s face during the Brighton game. Feels like that’s the longest it’s ever taken. Progress perhaps.
It is almost becoming acceptable to question the benefits of the great man’s continued presence – is a “thinktank” with David Gill and Bryan Robson the answer? Football might be 90% nostalgia. But nostalgia is meant to be nostalgic, not current. But what to do? He is simply too important to “work the lounges”.
What must be stressed in our handy United crisis guide is how Sir Alex would routinely change his backroom staff – a key to his success; no one has done it since – without referencing the fact none of his successors have been there long enough to rotate their wide men, let alone their first-team coach.
We need a chapter on the players. It is well documented that you don’t just become a bad player overnight. But there must be a minimum number of nights required for it to be possible – and it’s something the club have perfected.
The almost pantomine attacks on Harry Maguire earnestly galumphing around like a Gorg from Fraggle Rock might be unfair. But seeing him back away from the Brighton strikeforce makes you wonder how Kylian Mbappé might fare in Qatar.
Jadon Sancho is fast becoming the man with the sword from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark – swirling it around and around until Harrison Ford just shoots him. At Borussia Dortmund Sancho stepovered and jinked past people at will. Now he does it in front of them before passing it back to Diogo Dalot.
Lisandro Martínez is too short (please ignore Cannavaro & Mascherano) to be a centre-back. What HAS HAPPENED to Marcus Rashford? McFred. You could pick so many.
Callers are lined up to complain (correctly) about the Glaziers (sic) – sucking money, joy, entertainment out of the club. Important here to mention noodle partners, rubber affiliates, biofuel official suppliers, all complemented by an NFT of Ed Woodward’s face. Football fans can be forgiven for switching off when people start talking about leveraged debt. None of us got into this game to hear about that.
Neither do we want to hear about net spend. But United’s is enormous and yet for what? Where is the plan? Months of hoping for want-to-stay-at-home midfielder Frenkie de Jong only to be seemingly usurped by Chelsea, while each refreshed gossip page underwhelms in turn. Arnautovic. Rabiot. Morata. Odion Ighalo wasn’t the exception. He was the blueprint.
And of course there’s Cristiano Ronaldo – who should really be higher up this box-ticking exercise. Most pressing would be for one of the more tactically minded columnists to work out if pressing is still part of his game, if it ever was. It’s surprising that no one has really mentioned it. He scored all the goals. But is he the problem? Someone will get around to covering that eventually.
In all of this, you have to at least acknowledge how this all affects the fans – who the club at least pretend matter in this whole affair. Being a football fan is about expectations. Years of being the best must make this agony. Just because it’s hard to sympathise with the fanbase of a team that dominated for almost your entire youth doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Manchester United fans are people too. However for the rest of us this is the gift that keeps on giving.
Just before you save this to the desktop for easy access, point out that things can change quickly. It would be wonderful to see players bereft of confidence find it again. It would be good for the league if there was another team competing. What Ten Hag needs is time. Otherwise we rinse and repeat for 5bn years.