Threat of downsizing has desired effect but Manchester United still have hope

Buy low: always a good start in any deal. With 25 minutes gone at Old Trafford, Manchester United’s players certainly seemed to have been reading their investment briefings, skimming the handbook, underlining exactly the right parts.

Eighth in the league and out of Europe, the corporate scythe about to swing, even the stadium threatened with a righteous bulldozing. Add to that a 2-0 deficit to a finely grooved Aston Villa team, and at best this felt like a timely pitch for a little new investment; at worst like an act of self-immolation, United’s players trailing about the pitch like unwanted chattels, like a hastily scribbled redundancy list, like the Roy brothers trying to tank a takeover deal.

At which point, enter, of all things, hope. What a moment for this team to find its best half and its win of the season to date. Maybe all it takes in the end is the threat of a little corporate downsizing, and exactly the right frowning bald man in the stands.

Related: Højlund seals Manchester United’s thrilling comeback win over Aston Villa

There was even something beautiful in the sight of Rasmus Højlund scoring the final goal to make it 3-2. Here is a 20-year-old centre-forward whose signing was an act of heavy-handed brutality in itself, a footballer who is all potential and raw talent, out there blinking in the brightest of lights at the world’s most debilitating sports club, the place that steals your shadow, the original meat grinder. But Højlund it was who swivelled to send a fine finish in off the far post, a first league goal for him and the final moment in a wonderfully restorative second-half surge.

Alejandro Garnacho, still only 19, led the charge. By the end United had fielded five academy players, in among the usual off-cuts and used parts. And there will of course be no shortage now of casualties and trimmed fat as the Glazer-Ineos era kicks in.

The promise is already there with talk of a full audit of club staff. This is the playbook of high capitalism. Cut it back, make less do more, find the margins.

In the middle of this the most obvious question is whether Erik ten Hag has any part to play in that future.

With United 2-0 down and facing an eighth league game this season without scoring you could almost hear the keyboards being pounded, the pre-obituaries knocked into shape.

A single victory won’t change much. Nobody spends a billion pounds on a minority stake without lining up some fairly drastic changes.

Dave Brailsford was in the Old Trafford seats for this game. How many marginal gains make a maximal gain? Football is already rammed full of people trying to find an edge. Perhaps someone can finally get up on the main stand roof with some flashing and a caulk gun. On the other hand, a single clear voice can still make a huge difference in a world of endlessly muddled energies.

Zoom out, however, and the job from here remains undeniably huge. In his statement on the eve of this game Jim Ratcliffe had called for time and patience. Seriously? Who else gets that around here?

Football is the most wildly overheated entertainment industry on earth. This is the only reason the deal actually makes sense, because football is volcanic, addictive and giddy in its possibilities. Welcome to the inferno, the box of delights, the global mania. Vast fortunes can be made here, glory chased down. But you don’t get to ask for patience too.

The deal itself remains a head-scratcher. Outsourcing the football operations (of a football club) to a competing billionaire: nobody has ever done this before. It’s not hard to see why. Who gets the final say on summer tours or transfer spend? Everything is, in the end, a football operation. And these are classic chest-puffed billionaire egos we’re dealing with. Nobody around here is going to say “after you, old boy.”

Related: Jim Ratcliffe could cut 300 jobs at Manchester United in streamlining

And yet, the question remains. Is there anything left to lose here? Why not disrupt your own disruption? Why not actually import some kind of sporting expertise? There is so much low-hanging fruit to be scooped up after 15 years of muddle, so many easy fixes. As ever with Manchester United the problem is simply the heaviness of the air, the loss of traction in the executive tiers, the placemen and mediocrities in positions of influence. It will be another note in this endless psychodrama just watching those revolving doors whizz around.

As ever the players in that heavy red shirt are never as bad as they look. Ten Hag remains a good manager, as he was last season, lest we forget, with time now to make at least some kind of pitch for the future. Højlund ended his own night by giving Garnacho the man-of-the-match award, both of them glowing, beaming, in love with the moment. This is talent, this is youth, energy, hope. The question remains the same. Will it be allowed to breathe?