The writing was on the wall if you cared to look beyond the results, intermittent sprinkling of star dust, and layers of nostalgia.
Manchester United were spanked by Leicester City – and convincingly, despite the chaotic nature of the closing stages at King Power Stadium – as they were tactically undressed for all their flaws to be nakedly obvious.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men arrived in the East Midlands on Saturday afternoon level on points with Manchester City. It made it convenient to dust off any criticism of their mediocre performances by directing a finger to the league table and reminding of the vaunted company they were keeping.
United were in and around the defending champions, the European champions, and Liverpool – the team they absolutely do not want to become champions for the 20th time.
Not bad for an incoherent side with no clear strategy or solid coaching influence, eh?
The league table never lies, but it certainly can fail to tell the full story. Solskjaer’s charges have not operated with any degree of control, surety and collaboration as seen by the true title contenders in this division.
At Leicester, they shaped up as a bunch of individuals trying to problem-solve on their own in the absence of a steely set-up with and without the ball that they could bank on.
It has been the case all season, but was staggeringly evident when contrasted with the cohesion and chemistry illustrated by the side assembled by Brendan Rodgers.
Bar the opening weekend win against an obliging Leeds that played into their hands at Old Trafford, United have not managed to take large swathes of matches away from opponents.
They do not overpower them leading to a sense of defeatism, but actively invite their counterparts to have a go at their faulty transitions and non-existent midfield – regardless of personnel.
Despite having 64 per cent of the ball at Southampton, United registered only one more shot on target than the hosts in a 1-1 draw.
Wolves had carved chance after chance, doing everything but put the ball beyond David de Gea. They had 15 shots to 10, six of them on target to three – this despite United owning possession again.
The match was decided by the excellence of Mason Greenwood with 10 minutes left on the clock, which distracted from the nothingness of his team’s display. “It’s a sign of champions,” anyone that commented on United’s issues were told, “to win despite being utterly dire.”
That statement is true when it is required as an anomaly, not the norm: when performances in the large merit the fortune you find on taxing days.
It is not a match for United, who only tasted relief against struggling Newcastle in the final 10 minutes. A Bruno Fernandes strike was followed up by Jesse Lingard’s celebration in injury time, bloating the scoreline and belying how close the encounter was until the closing stages.
Drama at the death reconstructed the tale at West Ham too, who were without their linchpin Michail Antonio. De Gea’s thwarting of Mark Noble from the penalty spot with the final kick of the game, combined with Lingard’s brilliance on 89 minutes, armed United with another triumph to coat over critical analysis.
None of what they were doing – relying on Cristiano Ronaldo’s goals or a dose of magic from another member of an all-star cast, being overrun in midfield, having no continuous threat from the right leading to imbalance, offering up so many high-quality chances and being incapable of keeping a clean sheet – spelt sustainability for success.
The wheels would stop spinning. United lost to Aston Villa, who were without the impressive Leon Bailey. They were lucky not to be defeated by an Everton sans Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison, who were offered 10 shots from inside the box.
Which leads us to the pasting at King Power. If you did not foresee an embarrassment like this being on the cards given United’s deficiencies, especially on the counter and to dead-balls, you were either detached from reality or… Solskjaer.
Paul Pogba (left) said Manchester United deserved to lose at Leicester
Even Paul Pogba spotted the trend of repeating mistakes even as punishments stacked up. “To be honest, we’ve been having this kind of game for a long time, and we haven’t found the problem,” the midfielder said post-humiliation.
“We need to find what’s the problem, why we concede easy goals, stupid goals.
“Now we have to find what’s the key of these games that we lose. Because I think we deserved to lose. We need to find something or change something.”
Many, including former players aligned to the manager, will insist that the cure is simply to recruit more quality players. It is a maddening assessment considering the overflow of pedigree in United’s squad and the fact that they are routinely undone by an absence of a concrete blueprint.
Often, it seems as though the only methodology is to wait for one of the stars to showcase exactly why they’re a star. That has worked; that is not workable over a long period.
United were tactically bankrupt at Leicester and even Rodgers seemed shocked at their lack of identity out of possession and offensive famine despite the presence of Ronaldo, Greenwood, Jadon Sancho and Fernandes.
“Their central players weren’t pressing so we could be patient and work the ball through the pitch, we got into some really good areas and put pressure on their back line,” the Leicester manager said.
“We pressed well, and that takes the tempo up, allowing us to create opportunities.
“We scored four, could have had some more and our concentration levels were high.”
Leicester, off the back of horrid form, were everything United were not. Beyond the imbalance United have between their left and right side, with Aaron Wan-Bissaka incapable of being an attacking outlet, Ronaldo – his obvious status and goals aside – is posing a problem to their tempo.
Analyst Michael Caley shared a damning stat on Twitter: among outfield players in the league, he has attempted the fewest pressures per 90, just 2.65.
The next 20-plus players behind him are defenders. The midfielder or attacker with the second-fewest pressures per 90 after Ronaldo is Allan Saint-Maximin, with 6.0.
United’s issues in midfield are well documented and the misuse of Sancho, who could correct their ball-carrying ability on the right, is baffling.
The truth is that the concerns are not just position-specific, personnel-specific or weakness-specific.
An expensively assembled United squad that should absolutely be challenging for the title is being powered by nostalgia, goodwill, moments, individual touches and good vibes.
Solskjaer has done a lot right in terms of improving the mood at the club post the darkness of Jose Mourinho, injecting confidence and faith into players like Luke Shaw, building around Fernandes for a while and recruiting better in the large.
He still is yet to impart any kind of elite tactical identity that stretches beyond hitting teams with pace on the break.
Pogba was correct, something does indeed need to change.
United are not being honest with themselves that the answer to that is the someone they expected to morph from a caretaker into making the game’s premier minds uncomfortable.