On the day when Manchester United could have gone level on points with Manchester City, they instead ended up hammered and humiliated by Bournemouth. Perhaps it made an afternoon to sum up their season, when aims have seemed crushed by teams with much lesser resources but more of a strategy, when the win over Chelsea was left looking like the falsest of false dawns.
Yet it could also have represented a new low, even for this sorry campaign. United were booed off and it scarcely bodes well for a week when they face Bayern Munich and Liverpool that Old Trafford endured the surreal sound of Bournemouth supporters singing “We want four”. They almost got their wish, Dango Ouattara beating Andre Onana in added time after Sofyan Amrabat, Harry Maguire and Jonny Evans contrived between them to lose the ball, but it was chalked off.
Nevertheless, amid the inquest into United’s latest horror show, it should not be overlooked what a seismic, stunning result this was for the Cherries. They recorded their maiden win at a ground where Bournemouth had previously only led for 14 minutes and taken a solitary point. The Cherries were outstanding, as inspired as United were incoherent. Andoni Iraola’s team played the way Erik ten Hag’s were supposed to, with incision and speed in attack, defiance in defence and a gameplan suited to players schooled to implement it.
In contrast, United were a shambles. A sloppy start was followed by a wretched finish. They had perked up at the start of the second half, though urgency was not allied with much quality. They made a mockery of the statistic that they had won six of their previous eight league games or the fact that Ten Hag is the newly crowned Premier League manager of the month. Instead, they subsided to a sixth defeat of the campaign at Old Trafford already.
Thousands missed the end of it. When Marcos Senesi headed Bournemouth’s third goal, the stands began to empty. Ten Hag had denied he had lost the backing of around half of his dressing room but perhaps 50 per cent of the fanbase lost faith in their chances of staging a comeback and started to head for the exits. If there were varying degrees of effort from the players Ten Hag picked – Antony ran around, Anthony Martial did not – the abiding impression was just that they were really, really bad.
Bournemouth, meanwhile, were terrific. Dominic Solanke was an indictment of Martial, offering an example of how a centre forward can lead the line with purpose, pace, power and considerable intelligence. He fully merited his goal; when he angled a shot against the post, he almost had a second.
Bournemouth exposed United’s weakness in the air, scoring with two headers. Yet the fact that Ten Hag’s team looked susceptible to both the aerial ball and quick breaks was damning. Not for the first time, United lacked much of a midfield and now they will lose its constant: Bruno Fernandes’ needless booking for complaining rules him out of the trip to Anfield.
It was not the only occasion where United were architects of their own downfall. They gave the ball away for the two goals, the disallowed effort and, with Scott McTominay the culprit, when Solanke struck the woodwork.
Fernandes’ afternoon began badly. He gifted Bournemouth possession, with a pass aimed for McTominay. Lewis Cook was alert enough to cut it out, quick enough to burst past Amrabat and crossed for Solanke to finish with a backheel flick.
An hour later, Luke Shaw’s pass was intercepted, Solanke led a break, Marcus Tavernier crossed and Philip Billing, who had only been introduced a few minutes earlier, headed past Andre Onana. It highlighted a flaw in Ten Hag’s policy of using Shaw as a centre-back: not his passing, but his heading, and the more sizeable Bournemouth players looked to isolate themselves against him at crosses. Then, as Maguire stood and watched, Senesi headed in Tavernier’s corner, giving the latter two assists. Like Cook, like Solanke, like Antoine Semenyo, like so many others, Tavernier was excellent.
The same could scarcely be said for their hosts. United rarely looked like scoring. The newly anointed Premier League player of the month Maguire came closest when he had a looping header tipped over but there were points when Sergio Reguilon looked their brightest attacker.
On a day when Ten Hag’s choices felt as poor as the performance, Rasmus Hojlund began on the bench, along with Marcus Rashford, who had missed training on Friday due to illness. If the plan was to save the Dane for Bayern Munich, it backfired. Huge cheers greeted the summer signing’s arrival – or, more likely, the departure of the anaemic Martial – but Hojlund promptly collected a caution for waving an imaginary yellow card. When Fernandes was also guilty of dissent, it completed a disastrous afternoon.