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Manchester United Couldn’t Even Manage A Whimper

Bruno Fernandes of Manchester United looks dejected at full-time following the team's defeat in the UEFA Champions League match between Manchester United and FC Bayern München at Old Trafford on December 12, 2023 in Manchester, England.
Michael Steele/Getty Images

For a club with the stature and financial resources of Manchester United, there is no such thing as ending up on the wrong side of a "group of death." Certainly, being drawn into a Champions League group with Bayern Munich, but also with Copenhagen and Galatasaray does not qualify. In terms of favorable draws, it's hard to think of an easier path forward than "you can lose to Bayern twice and still should finish second with ease." And yet! This Manchester United side is far less than the sum of its history; any group can become a group of death if you play badly enough. And so in came the dropped points, the losses to each Copenhagen and Galatasaray, the draw against the latter, the two expected losses to Bayern.

After six games, United could not even manage one point per match, ending at the bottom of the group with just four points. Tuesday's final group stage match day was one last bit of pain, compounding United's listless must-win-game-turned-easy-loss to Bayern with a spirited 1-0 Copenhagen victory over Galatasaray that sent the Danish side to the knockout round and the Turkish club into the Europa League. It also sent United out of European competition for the rest of the season.

Watching the two games side-by-side with no context would have been a confusing experience. Both Copenhagen and Galatsaray played as if their lives in the Champions League were on the line, which they were; United, on the other hand, came out at home with no fire or evident ideas on how to beat a Bayern side that had long clinched top spot in the group and therefore had nothing to play for but United's misery.

Let's start there, actually: How does a club like Manchester United, who have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on its offense, manage just only five shots, one on target, in 90 minutes of do-or-die soccer? The rot at this club is partly to blame, spreading as usual from the top down; those hundreds of millions of dollars went in the wrong directions, with the club having to start Antony—I'll take the loss here, as I thought he'd be better than the complete bust he has been, and certainly did not see his domestic violence case coming—with no recourse but youngsters like Facundo Pellistri on the bench. (Pellistri is fine, even good, and especially for his age, but he should not be the "break glass in case of cataclysm" option that he was on Tuesday.)

The defense and midfield should not escape blame here, either, as Bayern was able to do whatever it wanted all over the pitch, and only didn't win by more because its players didn't seem to care too much for punishing United's lacksadasia once they'd taken the lead. The combination of Jamal Musiala and Kingsley Coman did most of the heavy lifting, with the former dropping into the space between United's midfield and backline and the latter steamrolling the left side of United's defense all game long. When United had the ball on the other end, Bayern's defense wasn't particularly tested at any point. The hosts seemed to panic when presented with any form of open space, launching long balls to isolated wingers or simply chucking it up to a similarly lonely Rasmus Højlund in the striker spot. The heat maps tell this story well: While United (left) had very little attacking presence in the middle of the park, Bayern blanketed the entirety of the pitch with easy combination plays:

A heat map of the December 12 game between Bayern and Manchester United, with a tellingly enormous blue cool spot in the middle around the goal on United's side.

The result was dull enough that there's not much to talk about in this match beyond that general state of things. Even the goal didn't elicit much emotion in either direction. After all, if United didn't seem to care about its failures, why should I, or anyone else watching? But it happened, so let's see it: In the 71st minute, Coman received a nice little pass into wide open space inside the penalty box, and the Frenchman with a history of big goals scored a small one for his side and a devastating one for his opponents:

Part of the reason that the goal felt like more of a period than an exclamation point is that things looked and felt pretty much over by then. Some of this had to do with United's sleepwalking effort; some of it, too, was because, just 13 minutes of real time earlier, across the North Sea in Copenhagen, the Danes had picked up the goal that they desperately needed and wanted, courtesy of Lukas Lerager's smooth run and cool tap-in. (Hilariously, Lerager would also receive a red card in the 90th minute, but that didn't change much.)

Galatasaray also showed fight on Tuesday, an orneriness that completely escaped its English groupmates. Though away from home and down 1-0, the Turkish side kept pushing for the equalizer that would keep its hopes of Champions League knockout soccer alive. It didn't come, but Galatasaray is a worthy Europa League team now, which is both what it would have hoped for when the group stage draw occurred and also, thanks to United's ineptitude, still a bit of a disappointment. There was no disappointment on Copenhagen's side, though, as the club qualified for its first round of 16 since 2011:

Still, though, every side in this group can hold its head high except for one. The exception, United, has found a new nadir in a season that has lived in the pain cave for months now. In the club's previous 23 matches, it has lost 12 times. After finishing third in last year's Premier League table, it is now in sixth, and even that feels like a miracle. Players are not-so-secretly starting to leak their rebellion on manager Erik ten Hag to the press, and the Dutch manager, who seemed to come in as a blazing fire of inspiration and tactical innovations, has now flickered into a barely burning ember. For everyone's well-being, it should be put out soon.

The thing is, who can fix this mess? United is bloated, with almost all of its players deteriorating in quality when they don the famous red jerseys of England's most historically successful side. Even someone like Bruno Fernandes, who was at times and in bursts the best player in the Premier League with United, has become a shell of his old self, to the point where his disappearance in such an important match felt not at all surprising. It wasn't a total disappearance, to be fair, as he did show up to blast a ball into the upper deck:

The best path forward, for ten Hag and United as a whole, might be to treat this season as a stepping stone. That is, play youngsters like Pellistri and Hannibal Mejbri more, see what the team has in Mason Mount when he is back healthy, and then rebuild for real, without throwing all of its substantial money at name brand players.

That strategy is always available to such a rich club, if only the people at the top are willing to be both patient and willing to endure intermittent failures during the process of figuring things out. Since Alex Ferguson retired back in 2013, that has not been United's MO for any substantial amount of time, though. So it's more likely that the brass at the club will resort to its same tricks:

  • Fire the manager.
  • Buy more players.
  • Ignore fit and tactics.
  • ????
  • No profit.

Tuesday's failure puts ten Hag under further pressure, sure, and it may be he has lost the locker room to such an extent that there's no fixing it. But he is only a symptom of a much bigger, much tougher disease. The team's rumored sale to Qatari investors backfired, though money has never been United's problem, even as it lost its massive financial advantage and now has to deal with having merely a really big one instead. Instead, maybe the next manager will make these misfits into a side that doesn't lose to Copenhagen and Galatasaray, both in matches and in the grind of a group stage. Or, maybe, what United looked like in this group is just what they are now. A club so far from the elite tier of Europe that it can lose a crucial game to a barely trying Bayern Munich side and have it feel like the most normal thing in the world.

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