With about 7 minutes to go in Tuesday night’s Champions League round-of-16 second leg, the home fans at Old Trafford gave possibly their biggest cheer of the second half.
Not for an equaliser, having trailed Atletico Madrid 1-0 at the break. No, it was for Harry Maguire being subbed off the pitch.
At fault for Renan Lodi’s decisive goal – and another from Joao Felix that was ruled out for offside not long before it – United’s not-so Captain Fantastic Maguire reached new lows in a season full of them.
Despite an energetic and encouraging start, it was ultimately a demoralising and draining night for Ralf Rangnick’s United, who were outsmarted by Diego Simeone’s streetwise Atletico and dumped out of Europe 2-1 on aggregate.
And so Manchester United’s season comes to an end, not even in April, but mid-March, with uncertainty clouding the club’s future, particularly in regards to who will take over as permanent manager in the summer.
“How he [Rangnick] was chosen to be manager for this club for six months… I don’t know,” was United legend Paul Scholes’ assessment from the BT Sport studio. “The first thing this club needs to do is get a proper coach in, give him two or three years to build a squad of players that will challenge.
“They [Atletico] are not a better team than Man United but they’ve got a better coach, a more experienced coach. If he [Simeone] was coaching Man United then United go through.”
The club’s fans have been used to seeing them fight to the final day for the league and the cups over the last 30 years, but now their team is barely in with a chance of even finishing in the top four.
No trophy for Ronaldo
The one bright spot for United? Defeat here means they won’t be on the end of a cricket score in the quarter-finals. If Liverpool can win 5-0 at Old Trafford in the Premier League this season, imagine how many goals they could rack up over two legs.
I shudder to think, too, of the field day the prolific Robert Lewandowski might have enjoyed against United’s fridge of a centre back had Bayern Munich come to town.
Ronaldo, who had performed heroics with a hat trick in the same stadium against Tottenham three days earlier, could do little to affect things here, and for the first time in 15 years, he will finish a season without a trophy.
What is clear is that there needs to be a clearout, starting with Maguire. This charade simply can’t go on any longer – he is not good enough to play for the club, let alone captain it.
How many times has he cost United points, and games, this season?
After scoring an awful own goal on Saturday to gift Spurs an equaliser, his blushes were only spared by Ronaldo dragging the team over the line for a 3-2 victory with a trademark bullet header from a corner.
In the same situation on Tuesday, as Ronaldo began to dart towards an inswinging corner, Maguire managed somehow to headbutt him with the back of his bonce, preventing him from reaching the ball by a matter of inches.
That comical gaffe, pounced upon by United’s legion of fed up social media fans, summed up a performance littered with mistakes from Maguire.
United tried their best to dig themselves out of the hole Maguire created for them at his former club Leicester earlier this season, when he was astonishingly at fault for every goal in a 4-2 defeat, having only returned to training from injury a day before.
That is when the rot really started to set in for United this season, and was the beginning of the end for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who was clearly picking players not on merit, or form, but their name and reputation.
A penny for Eric Bailly’s thoughts watching on again from the bench on Tuesday night, as Maguire put in another disasterclass.
Most fans thought Rangnick wouldn’t put up with that kind of nonsense, and would shake things up when he took over in December. But he has continued to pick Maguire in the first team, and refused to take the armband off him and give it to the more natural leader in his squad, Ronaldo.
Just off the top of my head, and I’m sure I’m forgetting plenty, Maguire has made errors that either directly led to or contributed to the opposition scoring in league games against Watford, Southampton, Burnley, Man City, and Liverpool, as well as the aforementioned matches against Spurs and Leicester.
Sure, Maguire went to the FA Youth Cup semi-final last week and gave an inspiring speech to United’s Under-18s – who beat Wolves 3-0 to reach the final for the first time since 2011 – and does great charity work off the pitch. But that doesn’t qualify him to be captain.
Whoever comes in and takes over the club in the summer needs to be brave enough to drop him and take the armband off him.
Against Atletico, United couldn’t play the high line needed to attack the visitors because they were so deep. The two full-backs, Diogo Dalot and Alex Telles, couldn’t go forward to put crosses in for Ronaldo and overload the Atleti defence because they needed to protect Maguire.
To be fair to Rangnick, it’s not all his fault – he has been thrown into an utter shitshow with a dressing room that is leaking, and a squad full of players either not good enough or not bothered.
But he got it hugely wrong tonight by picking Maguire, with Victor Lindelof and Bailly on the bench when they would have been much better suited to the high line the manager tried to play.
It didn’t help that referee Slavko Vincic looked utterly clueless, with both sides bemused by his hesitancy to pull out his yellow card.
But any grievance United might have that the ref didn’t blow his whistle for what would’ve been a soft foul on Anthony Elanga 30 seconds before Atletico put the ball in the net was negated by the schoolboy performance Rangnick’s side put in.
After Lodi’s goal, United gave away stupid fouls, which the visitors gladly used to eat up the clock for 60 seconds each time. And when they didn’t get a free kick, they got back to their feet and back into position, instead of moaning and losing concentration like United.
Neither of these two teams are good enough to win the Champions League. But Atletico, who are fourth in La Liga and trail leaders and neighbours Real Madrid by 15 points, created one good chance and scored, and then defended for the rest of the game.
Twice finalists under Simeone, and twice unlucky to lose to Madrid (with Ronaldo haunting them both times), Atletico have the manager and the players with the know-how to navigate these ties. United have a player who has been relegated from the Premier League on four occasions captaining them.
It was just the same old story. All season long, we have seen weak leadership, a weak mentality, and a weak dressing room.
Marcus Rashford was anonymous again off the bench, putting in a poor performance on the right where he misplaced passes, refused to cross the ball, and generally looked like he was sulking because he didn’t start.
Some of these players are a disgrace to the club, and an embarrassment to the shirt, but they will be thrust upon whoever succeeds Rangnick.
That’s likely to be Mauricio Pochettino, whom the money men on the board know won’t rock the boat, and will play Maguire, Rashford and co. And so they will protect themselves and the status quo, instead of ripping up the roots of these problems, as is required.
“If you bring in [Kylian] Mbappé and [Erling] Haaland this summer, United aren’t winning the league,” former captain Rio Ferdinand said alongside Scholes on BT Sport. “It doesn’t matter who they bring in. It [the revamp] needs to be from the top down.”
At the end of the day, United don’t deserve to be in the Champions League, this season or next season. It’s inexcusable, but it’s the reality the club faces.
This is probably the worst United have been in the Premier League era, worse even than the dark days of David Moyes. It is an unmitigated mess.
We need strong leadership, and no more scapegoating; get rid of the players who aren’t good enough, and the ones who have downed tools.
I would say it’s worrying that this was the biggest game of the season and the players just melted away; that they were 1-0 down at half-time, attacking the Stretford End, and couldn’t get up for it.
But I’m not surprised. The worst player in this team leads them out and tells them what to do. So it’s as simple as that.