SoccerOutside the Box

Ken Early: This is the worst Manchester United team in more than 30 years

United will need four points from their last two matches just to equal their worst-ever points total in the Premier League era

They say it’s the hope that kills you, and hoping that Manchester City are going to slip is the saddest challenge in sport. No wonder that Arsenal played at Old Trafford as though fighting the effects of a near-lethal dose of some toxic substance.

Mikel Arteta’s team have not played worse than this in 2024, yet by the end they were celebrating a win that meant they get to keep on hoping to the very last day.

“Today we had to play in a really special place, our history wasn’t very optimistic about what could happen,” Arteta said. Arsenal had won only four times at Old Trafford in 31 previous Premier League visits. Yet whatever history said the bookmakers were saying that Arsenal were heavy odds-on favourites. United were an unheard-of 8/1, the betting markets judging that they had seldom been in such a sorry state.

That combination of extreme pressure and expectation weighed heavily on Arsenal, who dominated the first few minutes but then drifted into a kind of lethargy. “We played too safe,” Arteta said. In fact they hardly played at all.


Thankfully for Arsenal and for the Premier League hype machine the title-chasers were up against one of the puniest United teams ever to play in the competition.

Lest that verdict sound hyperbolic or overly harsh, consider that United will need four points from their last two matches against Newcastle and Brighton just to equal their worst-ever points total in the Premier League era. They will need to score four more goals than they concede just to match their worst-ever goal-difference performance. They have already lost more matches than in any previous Premier League season. This – genuinely – is the worst United in more than 30 years.

Erik ten Hag justifies this appalling performance by pointing to an injury list which on Sunday included 10 first-teamers who cumulatively cost the club more than £400 million, though they would now command rather less on the market: Harry Maguire, Raphael Varane, Tyrell Malacia, Luke Shaw, Victor Lindelof, Lisandro Martinez, Mason Mount, Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes.

Wayne Rooney on Sky effectively accused these players of quiet-quitting, suggesting that some of the absentees could have played but were reluctant to put their bodies on the line for United’s moribund league campaign in a game they all expected to lose.

Ten Hag had tried to rouse those players who did show up by challenging them to deliver a performance for the fans they had let down in the 4-0 collapse at Crystal Palace. That game was chiefly memorable for an all-time defensive horrorshow by stand-in centre back Casemiro, who was dribbled past eight times (more than any player in any league match this season) and was humiliated by Michael Olise for Palace’s opening goal.

Afterwards Jamie Carragher had talked about Casemiro’s performance as though he were a brain-damaged boxer who needed to be retired for his own safety. Yet six days later Casemiro started again at centre back. Just how badly do you have to play to lose your place in Erik ten Hag’s defence?

“I had no options,” the coach said afterwards – although he had Willy Kambwala, who, he claimed, was not fit enough for 90 minutes, and Scott McTominay, who played in an attacking midfield role instead.

“I haven’t seen it, but what I heard was not always a success,” Ten Hag said of the idea of playing McTominay in defence. McTominay has played many times at centre back for Scotland and helped keep a clean sheet against England at Wembley in the Euro 2020 finals. But Scotland did lose some of those matches too, so why not stick with Casemiro, who has seen just the 10 goals go past his keeper in the four games you’ve been picking him at centre back?

Inside 20 minutes Casemiro had made the mistake that cost his team the game.

Having dropped close to his own goal line to give Andre Onana an option for a short pass, the Brazilian then seemed to forget that simply by standing there he had the power to play any Arsenal attacker onside, and took a little breather for himself rather than moving up the pitch to get level with his team-mates. It was the mistake of a player who was not used to the demands of the position he was playing, and also not keen to meet those demands.

“It’s a small detail,” Erik ten Hag said. “One player makes a mistake and it opens up.” That is usually how defending works at the top level, all the mistakes are small details. Ten Hag’s extraordinary tolerance for these small details perhaps explains why United have conceded 82 goals in all competitions this season, the most they have let in since 1970/71.

Maybe the mention of that particular season is a good omen for Mikel Arteta, who sounded at Old Trafford like he had been poring over the record books. “27 wins in the Premier League, it’s the most in the history of this football club in 130 years. That’s not progress, that’s history,” Arteta said. Arsenal’s previous highest tally of wins in a 38-game season was 26. In that context their achievement this season is phenomenal.

Unfortunately the currently relevant context is Manchester City, who have beaten that tally in five of the last six seasons. City will make it six of the last seven if they win either of the two games they have left. Arsenal have never before had to do battle with such a monster.

It’s hard to comprehend that you can play a season like never before, breaking the records of even a great club like Arsenal, and still potentially finish with nothing. Arteta gave vent to that frustration after the defeat to Aston Villa that handed the initiative to City: “With the amount of games that we have won in a row in any other league in the world you are six or eight points clear.”

He has had a month since then to digest the Villa defeat and at Old Trafford he sounded more philosophical and accepting. His team have made sure they will be there to the end. Whatever happens they will “live the experience” of a Premier League finale with a chance of the title. And... you never know... City might slip.