LIVERPOOL, England — There have been some shocking Manchester United performances since Sir Alex Ferguson retired six years ago. It is a list that includes Olympiakos, Manchester City and Liverpool in 2014, Wolfsburg and Stoke in 2015, and Brighton, Tottenham, West Ham and Liverpool in 2018. You can now add Everton away in 2019.
It is a crowded field, but the dismal display at Goodison Park was as bad as it’s been since Fergie waved goodbye. Easter Sunday at Everton marked the end for David Moyes in 2014 when an appalling performance in a 2-0 defeat, watched by a fan dressed as the Grim Reaper in the front row, finally convinced executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward his time was up. This was worse, by a comfortable margin.
While there is no suggestion Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s position is under threat just a month after signing a three-year contract to replace Jose Mourinho permanently, each one of his players who lined up here should fear for their futures. That Solskjaer could not definitively say whether all of his players cared enough in his post-match news conference was telling.
Solskjaer’s first declaration upon taking the job in December was that no United team should ever be outworked. It said everything about the performance against Everton that the home side ended the game having run 8 kilometres further than their visitors.
The Norwegian delivered a warning at his pre-match news conference on Friday that some of his squad needed a “reality check,” but judging by the spirit, the desire and the character of the United players, it fell on deaf ears. After 25 minutes, the loudspeaker inside the stadium bellowed “commence Goodison exercise,” but it had already turned into a training exercise for Everton’s players long before.
It was a performance that would be unacceptable when the legends of the Treble season — Solskjaer included — play a friendly against Bayern Munich at the end of May, never mind in a game that was must-win in the context of a tight race to finish in the top four. After the final whistle, Victor Lindelof, Diogo Dalot and Scott McTominay went over to the United fans in the corner of Goodison Park and held up their hands in apology, and it was the least they could do.
The travelling supporters had kept singing and clapping as their team disintegrated in a shambolic sea of pale pink kits. They would have been forgiven for packing it in by 2:00 p.m. to find a beer garden in which rescue their bank holiday weekend.
They could be in for more pain yet. After a 3-0 drubbing in Barcelona, a 4-0 battering against Everton, if there is any team that could continue the sequence and make it five it is Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City who, helpfully, visit Old Trafford on Wednesday.
BBC pundit Jermaine Jenas said in the week that Solskjaer is the wrong choice as manager but this defeat — and the run of six defeats in eight — is not a consequence of appointing the former striker but of six years of poor decisions.
Anthony Martial was atrocious against Everton, and so too were most of his teammates, but it was the failure of United’s structure that was laid bare at Goodison Park. Manager after manager appointed in response to the last one. Players signed for millions of pounds with no long-term plan. Contract extensions handed out on evidence as slim as a couple of good games.
Solskjaer declared in the Everton media room afterwards: “I will be successful here.” It is a bold statement, but he needs help. Managers with the highest European pedigree like Louis van Gaal and Mourinho have come here and, ultimately, failed. Solskjaer will do the same if changes are not made off the pitch.
A technical director has been spoken about seriously for nearly a year, but just three weeks before the end of the season, one has still not been appointed. Woodward has spoken to a number of prospective candidates around the world but the position, at the moment, remains unfilled.
It does not bode well ahead of a summer that could see as many as five players coming in and even more leaving. Privately, Solskjaer had admitted challenging Manchester City and Liverpool next season is unlikely given how far they are ahead in the Premier League, but if recruitment in the summer does not go well, there may be more days like this on the horizon.
In the short term, Solskjaer’s aim is Manchester City on Wednesday. Trailing the top four by 11 points when he came in, it is remarkable that, with four games to go, they are even in with a chance of finishing in the Champions League places. But realistically, they will now have to beat Guardiola’s team, who need points themselves to keep fending off Liverpool. That will be difficult given United have not scored from open play for 437 minutes and have not kept clean sheet in the past 11 games.
Worryingly, though, the problems on the pitch are dwarfed by those off it.