After a day that brought so many storylines together for suitably fitting endings, the wonder is whether this 4-1 Watford rout also brings an end to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s time as Manchester United manager. Read it again: 4-1! Look at it again. This absurd afternoon ended with Bruno Fernandes reproaching the away end for booing both Solskjaer and the players that had bothered to go over. That was a landmark moment.
It is not an exaggeration to describe this as the worst performance of the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era. The scale of ineptitude was simply remarkable.
It also puts United in as bad a position as they’ve been in that time, seventh in the league after 12 games, but with just four points from the last seven and that despite the highest wage bill in football.
The contrast between that and Watford should of course mean the story is as much about Claudio Ranieri’s brilliantly enthusiastic team, but it is difficult not to even put that down to how bad United were.
Everyone was awful bar David De Gea and substitute Donny van de Beek, who of course scored to even make one of the positives look bad for Solskjaer given how he has left him out. Cristiano Ronaldo was meanwhile just missing chances. Harry Maguire was sent off after two bookings in seven minutes, and the most ludicrous of second yellow cards. The centre-half, like his team, just played himself into trouble.
Leading by example. There were no fingers in ears this time. There was, bizarrely, a high-five from Solskjaer.
The level of farce was fixed by the first meaningful moment of the match.
It’s remarkable to think it could have been much worse for United. Scott McTominay could have also received red twice, but particularly for the foul on Joshua King in the box in the fifth minute. That whole episode wasn’t actually solved until the 10th minute, by which point Watford right-back Kiko Femenia had smashed the ball into the net, De Gea had saved two penalties from Ismaila Sarr and it was still 0-0.
The winger’s initial spot kick was low and slow, but De Gea’s admittedly fine save only went as far as Femenia, who thundered the ball past him first time. Part of the reason he was so quick to it was because he had moved too fast, encroaching before the penalty was taken.
Referee Jonathan Moss ordered a retake, only for Sarr’s second penalty to be even worse. Given the effect that could have had on his confidence, his supreme strike to make it 2-0 on half-time was all the more remarkable, but Watford were by then on a wave.
That was the finish of a team being willing to try things because they were so superior.
King’s eventual opener, after 28 minutes, was fully deserved. Watford could have been 2-0 ahead by then and maybe 4-0 ahead by half-time.
They just sensed a vulnerability in United, something made so visible by Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s indecisive header. Emmanuel Dennis was left to cut it back for King to finish.
United could barely complete a pass. It took 40 minutes for them to put together any kind of combination together in midfield, and the only chance they had was a speculative effort out of nothing from Marcus Rashford.
Sarr’s divine volley was meanwhile the consequence of concerted Watford pressure. They were so much the better team.
It was almost a feat in itself that a United side with this much quality looked this bad.
Solskjaer had to do something, so he did what almost everyone has been demanding – not least the United fans.
They had again been singing Van de Beek’s name, and it was difficult not to feel this was protest by proxy. Solskjaer’s status as a genuine club legend means those supporters will never call for him to be sacked but the support for the ostracised Dutch midfielder was clear disapproval of the general situation. That was to grow into outright boos by the end.
Van de Beek immediately showed everyone why the extent of his sidelining was so needless, let alone so wrong.
It was not just his well-taken goal, which should have been the spark for much more for United. It was that he was one of the few players who looked any way assertive and was willing to actually make things happen.
The goal involved a few outcasts as fellow substitute Anthony Martial set up Jadon Sancho for a cross, before Ronaldo teed up Van de Beek.
The midfielder returned the favour minutes later, slipping Ronaldo through with a supreme through ball. A goal would usually have been a certainty but that just isn’t United or Ronaldo right now. Ben Foster stood well to push a shot from the one-on-one away. The Portuguese continued to miss chances.
The expected United wave just wasn’t coming. They were still disconnected, still disparate.
Maguire was soon dismissed.
Maguire’s torrid run of form continues with a red card to compound United’s miserable afternoon
As if the events of the last two weeks didn’t make his eventual red card bad enough, the manner of it just took the whole performance to new levels of farce.
It was all the worse because, clearly playing with a bit of trepidation after the Van de Beek goal, Watford weren’t even putting United under any pressure. Despite that, Maguire just got himself into a mess trying to play the ball out of defence, getting caught out by Tom Cleverley.
The centre-half went in, Cleverley went down, and Maguire was sent off.
Watford just set off again.
Joao Pedro made it 3-1 by putting it between De Gea’s legs, before Dennis finished off a frankly incredible afternoon.
Whether it finishes Solskjaer’s time in charge remains to be seen. This is the modern Manchester United.
This, however, is surely beyond even what this hierarchy has been willing to tolerate.
One argument for keeping Solskjaer is that it would it be too much instability ahead of a huge Champions League game at Villarreal on Tuesday.
The bigger question is whether they can even trust him with it.
Here, he lost the game. He evidently lost the faith of many fans. The only fair conclusion is that he should lose his job.