Erik ten Hag or Mauricio Pochettino? Unless either of the prospective Manchester United managers can demonstrate a proficiency in sorcery, it hardly matters.
That was evident yet again when the Red Devils went to Everton and chucked in the battle of the banter clubs. With these players, this dearth of character, this shameful lack of motivation, this half-arsed hierarchy, what chance has any new manager got?
Any United fans pinning their hopes on either Ten Hag or Pochettino riding into Manchester to straighten out such a chaotically assembled squad is kidding themselves. Ten Hag reportedly proposed a five-year plan to rebuild the football club. On recent evidence, the Ajax coach could be written off as a dreamer; he will need ten.
To say that the defeat to Everton is their worst performance of the season – the reaction on many on social media in the immediate aftermath of the final whistle at Goodison Park – perhaps feeds off a hearty portion of recency bias. Because United have played as hopelessly as that on a few occasions this season. And last season. And each time it gets harder to stomach, for the United fans who’ve fought the notion that their team is comprised largely of bluffers, and the neutrals scarcely able to fathom what this great club has become.
So often have the players revealed their barely-concealed disdain for the travelling supporters that this result, to a team deep in the mire and themselves lacking the necessary bollocks, comes as no surprise. To an Everton side, pinned by Sean Dyche this week as one that ‘don’t know how to win’, the sight of the United circus rolling in to town must have been manna from heaven.
The Toffees, themselves a shambles from top to bottom, at least had a cause to fight for. United did too – the top four – but you wouldn’t know it. Not from their intensity here, or last week at home to a Leicester side who spent the first hour waiting to beaten before they realised: “Lads, it Man Utd.”
It took Everton and their fans just under half an hour to catch on too. Few grounds can be as intense as Goodison but initially it was just tense, which is understandable given what the home supporters have been subjected to by Frank Lampard’s side of late. United did not even need to quieten the crowd because the Toffees have spent the last few weeks doing that for them.
Nor did it seem that it was the Everton players who geed up the Gwladys Street, more that Evertonians sussed that, actually, United really are as bad as reports had suggested. As if they couldn’t quite believe it without seeing for themselves.
The opening goal, of course, swelled that belief among the Goodison faithful. And, of course, it came as a consequence of United failing to perform their basic tasks.
Nemanja Matic, seemingly wading through quicksand all afternoon, failed to scan upon receiving the ball in midfield and gave up possession far too easily; Aaron Wan-Bissaka tracked back an overhit pass for Richarlison with his customary apathy whenever there is no prospect of a slide tackle; Matic offered an impression of a tackle to deny Alex Iwobi; before Anthony Gordon’s shot found the net via the shell of Harry Maguire.
For the remaining hour, United did what they do best. They pretended. They pretended to attack, pretended to tackle, pretended to care. But there was no disguising their lack of intent.
We could pick on individuals, but what’s the point? Every technical, tactical and mental deficiency has been nit-picked already on these pages and there was no new or interesting conclusion to draw aside from to question how far a group of players can actually drift. Like last week, this performance simply served to reaffirm every pessimistic view of these United players, with Ralf Rangnick surely more gloomy than anyone of their prospects.
The interim manager has carried the air of a man who can scarcely believe what he is witnessing on a daily basis and the German called it on Friday: “Game plan and tactics is one thing tomorrow but the other thing, and probably the most important thing, is mentality, attitude, physicality.” The message, evidently, is yet to pierce the bubble these United players reside in.
Yes, some will go. Not enough since the club is still obliged to field 11 players on the opening day of next season, but there will be a clear-out of sorts. There has to be. United finished with a midfield of Juan Mata and Paul Pogba, both of whom are counting down the days to the end of their contractual obligations. Jesse Lingard too will be off and many of their team-mates will watch with envy as they skip towards the door. For Marcus Rashford, once more it looked like the novelty of playing for his boyhood club has vanished, while Wan-Bissaka appears to know that he can’t get away with it for much longer.
But Pochettino or, more likely, Ten Hag will still have to work with many of these players, under these owners. For both, it’s not yet too late to block Richard Arnold’s phone number.