The great thing about hitting rock bottom, Hollywood movies are fond of pointing out, is that there is only one way left to go. But there is another option. Hollywood movies: meet Manchester United. Too big to fail properly, but somehow still managing to fail all the same.
Perhaps the most brutal part of this night of calamitous, football‑style activity from the United defence and midfield at Old Trafford was the moments of hope in between, scattered like flowers in the rain.
The worst part was pretty much everything else. There was another alarming night for André Onana, who seemed at various key moments to be simply leaping around energetically quite near the ball, a man only pretending to keep goal, albeit not that convincingly.
The most striking moment, a low of deep ocean shelf proportions, came with 85 minutes gone, United down to 10 men and losing 3-2 at home against Galatasaray. Cue, from the substitutes’ bench, an £85m winger who is being investigated over allegations of domestic violence. In a time of pain a hero will come. Just not, perhaps, this one.
The best part, maybe the only really good part for United, was Rasmus Højlund. It is easy to feel protective of Højlund, whose only crime is to be a highly promising footballer signed by Manchester United during the era of churn.
He started his sixth game in 19 days here because he’s the only real centre-forward at the club. He scored twice, the second a wonderful goal in the second half to put United 2-1 up. Davinson Sánchez slipped inside his own half. From there Højlund didn’t consider anything other than forward thrust, straight lines.
He has an unusual body shape, with a long torso and the powerful legs of a squatter, shorter man. Here he just clicked straight into sprint mode, feet battering the turf, bumping the last defender away. The real beauty was the switch from full thrust into a moment of delicacy, Højlund retaining the clarity to freeze the moment, drop the revs and execute a lovely little dink finish. It was a one-man band of a striker’s goal, a goal with every instrument in the orchestra.
From that point the sky fell in. It took four minutes for Galatasaray to equalise. Casemiro was sent off conceding a penalty moments later, victim of a dreadful plinked pass from Onana, the current chief host body for the all-consuming Manchester United virus.
Mauro Icardi spanked the kick wide. But he made it 3-2 a little later, just strolling through the centre of everything, all the United players, waltzing past main reception, drying his hands on the club flag, and then dinking the ball over Onana, who once again was doing things, waving his arms, executing all of the goalkeeping skills, just not necessarily in the right order.
So Manchester United have now lost two in two in the Champions League. The wider run is six defeats in nine games. Is this sustainable? What stage are we at now in this endlessly scrolling theatre of pain?
There is of course a sense of something mannered about all this, of learned behaviour. This is now a club where the only energy is dark energy, where the entire brand is now Hot Mess. This is a club now basically retailing their own disaster-drama. Despair, outrage, sackings, periods of tender hope, a cast of captivating ham characters: this is all still product.
Leaks in the roof. Ratcliffe v Jassim. The career of Harry Maguire. Everything becomes a parable, a dead end, an ominous chapter heading. This is football recast as Sunset Boulevard, a club scuttling about its ruined mansion, makeup stating to crack.
How much more of this have they got left? How long before this mediocrity stops being cinematic and gripping? It is 10 years since Alex Ferguson left. United started winning 20 years before that. The post‑Fergie void is now half as long as the actual golden times. There will come a vanishing point at some stage, a moment where there is no more grand old family furniture left to throw into the fire.
That sense of wasted time and talent was present also in the shape of Wilfried Zaha who scored a poignant first equaliser for the visitors. In many ways Zaha was the first of the Lost Boys, a proto‑Sancho. Ferguson’s last signing, he played only 167 minutes for United.
At the time Zaha was seen as the villain of his own story. History has turned his way in the years since. This is a club that has a habit of eating its young: we will reel you in, garland you with hope, thrust you out into the world without care or structure. Welcome to the meat grinder.
What will it do to Erik ten Hag now? This is in so many ways an impossible job. Not so much coaching as fire-extinguishing, managing up, sideways, down, trying to patch the holes in what has been for so long only a semi- competent executive. There is still hope here. But it feels like a familiar point in that same old dramatic cycle.