Sunday’s defeat to Tottenham Hotspur was a new low for a disjointed and muddled side.
Lads, it’s Manchester United. Or at least, it’s something that looks a bit like them, United at one remove, a United-style product. On a chilly, slow-burn, ultimately raucous afternoon at White Hart Lane the contrast between the collection of energetically baffled red shirts currently representing English football’s champion club of the past 25 years, and the team Alex Ferguson could send out to feast on their opponents with a flick of his finger was so pronounced as to be more or less completely meaningless.
This was instead a kind of alternate red and white world, Manchester United glimpsed through a psychedelic prism. Weird, late, jumbled up. Expensively acquired, dotted with youth, charged with pace. But somehow also lost in their own ponderous moments, like a collection of dying flies trying to batter their way out of a fluorescent tube.
There have been a few disjointed, downright odd days in the recent history of Manchester United. The competition is pretty stiff here. But this has to be up there, an afternoon to make you question not simply whether Louis van Gaal should carry on as manager of the club, but whether anything could actually be gained from getting rid of him, an existential-crisis 3-0 defeat for a United team so devoid of urgency and bite the only emotion it seems to inspire is a kind of humorous relief, a perverse kind of weirdness-fascination.
What now for Van Gaal, who seems to be wheeled out at the end of games such as these as much out of a perverse, vicarious fascination with what he might say next?
Even for a Van Gaal sympathiser it is almost impossible to make a case for keeping him in place for the final year of his contract. Not because any team has a right to win trophies, or because it is a disgrace to come fifth in a competitive league. The positives of the Van Gaal interlude were on show here in a team containing three players aged 20 or younger.
Anthony Martial might have opened the scoring here in the second half. He looks a wonderfully pure modern footballer, blessed with speed, power and driving intelligence. Timothy Fosu-Mensah is a hugely impressive teenage powerhouse, and was United’s best player until he limped off.
At least at the start of the second half there was an opportunity to speculate exactly why, how, with what in mind – satire, boredom, an obscure absurdist protest at the rigidity of identity politics – Van Gaal would have decided to send on Ashley Young not as a false nine, or a deep-lying striker, but an actual lead-the-line centre forward.
By the end Young had moved to right-back, Jesse Lingard had shuttled most of the way across the midfield, Juan Mata had spent an inconclusive spell filling in at right-wing, Fosu-Mensah had done a fine job winkled in at right-back.
At the final whistle Van Gaal stood up as the players trooped off and ordered them down the touchline to applaud the away support. They looked more than a little surprised, but trudged over and waved a bit, to a mixed response. It was a fittingly half-cocked end to an afternoon on which the most jumbled, oddly skewed and seasick-looking United team of modern times more or less reached an end point in the Premier League season.