So, what would Erik ten Hag have learned from his first opportunity to see, close up, a football team that is becoming sadly accustomed to trailing in among the also-rans?
First things first, the next manager of Manchester United will presumably know enough about his new club to understand why a lot of their supporters, watching another disjointed performance from the away end at Crystal Palace, seemed preoccupied with events elsewhere.
Liverpool will not be winning the quadruple – ie, outdoing United’s 1999 treble – and they will not be drawing level with the team from Old Trafford when it comes to the number of championships they have won. And, if you understand the history of sporting enmity between these two clubs, you will appreciate how much it matters to United’s supporters to remain ahead, 20-19, on that front.
Ultimately, though, what does it say for the modern-day United that their supporters could be heard celebrating Manchester City winning the league because, on the scale of rivalry, Pep Guardiola’s team are regarded as the lesser of two evils?
This is not what a club with United’s ambitions should have become – but, in another sense, this is the reality, and this is what Ten Hag will be inheriting when he starts properly.
At least he can be grateful that United will not have to fix a smile and pretend to be enthusiastic about the Europa Conference League next season. United have finished sixth and, if nothing else, it spares them from dropping into a competition they would find it almost impossible to embrace. It would have been, put bluntly, an embarrassment.
Not that anybody from Old Trafford should be overjoyed about the prospect of returning to the Thursday-night, Sunday-afternoon churn of the Europa League. Nobody associated with the club had this ambition when the season began with the signings of Jadon Sancho, Rafael Varane and Cristiano Ronaldo and lots of talk that, finally, United might be ready again to challenge for the Premier League title.
We know now it was a deception. The season has been one long ordeal and Ten Hag, watching their 1-0 defeat to Palace from the stands at Selhurst Park, ought to have a better idea now why they have finished with only 58 points, their lowest tally of the Premier League era .
What he might not have realized is that this is also a new low for United when it comes to the final league table and what it tells us about the gap that has emerged between the two Manchester clubs.
They have finished 35 points behind City and, to put that into context, they have never been that far behind their neighbors at any other point since the Abu Dhabi takeover in 2008 changed the landscape of English football. In Guardiola’s six seasons with City, United have finished, on average, 20.3 points behind the team from the other side of Mancunian Way. In order, it has gone: 35, 12, 15, 32, 19 and nine. It is not right to describe it as a gap – it is a gulf.
United’s latest away defeat was their sixth in a row and that has not happened in the league since 1981. But the most damning statistic is possibly from the final goal-difference column. City’s is plus 73, Liverpool’s plus 68. United’s is zero: the first time they have not had a positive goal difference since 1990.
Too much can be read into those moments when the television cameras flashed on Ten Hag and he did not exactly look like a man who was enjoying what he was watching. It is fair to say, however, that the entire United contingent looked like they would be glad to put a large red cross through the season. Big changes need to be made. Many are already happening and that will continue over the summer.
That goes all the way to the top of the club. Major restoration work is needed and, unless Ten Hag is a miracle worker, it was difficult to leave Selhurst Park with any renewed belief that United will be ready next season to establish themselves as authentic title challengers.
Steve McClaren, set to be part of the new-look management team, was a couple of seats along from the Dutchman and could probably be forgiven for thinking a heck of a lot has changed since he was Sir Alex Ferguson’s assistant in the “football, bloody hell ”era.
This is a team that seems to have forgotten what it should mean to pull on that famous shirt. United look what they are: an afterthought for the teams at the top and grateful, to say the least, to reach the end of the season. Their body language could not be clearer if each player was given a neon sign to wear around their necks. The message would be: good riddance to 2021-22.
At least those players have had the self-awareness to cancel their usual end-of-season awards night. What, after all, is there to celebrate when City and Liverpool, the two clubs United always measure themselves against first, have had all the fun and adventures?
Ralf Rangnick’s time as interim manager will certainly not be remembered by United’s supporters with any affection. Some of the players had to type his name into Google when he was appointed. It was not a promising start. He has not tried to conceal his own grievances lately but when he complains about the lack of togetherness and team spirit he does not seem to fathom it reflects badly on him, too. His job was to put United back on an upward trajectory and, ultimately, he has failed.
Once again at Palace, he talked about it being an error-strewn performance. Once again, he talked about bad passes and how going out of the Champions League had been “like someone had popped a balloon” concerning their form. Rangnick does not like to sugarcoat the truth but the most revealing comment came from David de Gea, United’s goalkeeper. The club, he said, were already looking for new players. “Hopefully they bring good ones with good character.”
Rangnick’s final team selection told its own story, with Anthony Elanga and Hannibal Mejbri in the starting line-up and four teenagers – Shola Shoretire, Charlie Savage, Alvaro Fernandez and Alejandro Garnacho – on the bench.
Marcus Rashford, like Ronaldo, missed out because of an injury, though it felt telling that the first assumption when the teams were announced was that he had not warranted a place on the bench. Rashford’s slump has been going on for over a year and it has to be one of the first challenges for Ten Hag to get to the bottom of.
Let’s be clear though: there are all sorts of issues waiting for the man who has just won a third Eredivisie title with Ajax.
Just consider the moment, 90 seconds in, when Diogo Dalot had a relatively simple pass to make to play it square to Fred. Dalot hit the ball thigh-high. Fred could not control it and, up in the stands, the thought might have occurred to Ten Hag that this was not exactly what they know in Amsterdam as Total Football.
The indignities continued to stack up and – hypothetical, perhaps – it is difficult to think United’s players would have had such a favorable reaction from their own supporters if the day had ended up with Liverpool’s ribbons, not City’s, on the Premier League trophy.
In the first half, as the news came in that Sadio Mane had scored for Liverpool against Wolverhampton Wanderers at Anfield, Bruno Fernandes could be seen shaking his head and staring accusingly at Elanga for a perceived mistake. Fernandes, Ten Hag will quickly understand, does a lot of head-shaking (see top image for one such example).
The next bulletin arrived at the same time as Fernandes played the worst pass of the match to give the ball directly to the opposition. This time, the newsflash was that City were losing and, as it stood, were straying dangerously close to blowing the league title. United had problems of a different nature: Wilfried Zaha gratefully took advantage of Fernandes’ mistake to engineer a shooting opportunity and score with the game’s decisive moment.
“We had too many unforced errors and bad giveaways,” Rangnick said. “That is how we conceded the goal. It was our assist. The goalscorer, in the end, was Zaha but the ones who gave the assist were ourselves. ”
By the time it was all done, a roar could be heard from the United end when the news filtered through that City had saved themselves. A party was starting in Manchester and, 250 miles south, United’s fans were celebrating the news.
It has been this way for a few years and, if anything can tell us what kind of club Ten Hag will be inheriting, this is it.
As De Gea put it: “The best thing that happened today is the season has finished.”
(Top photo: Steven Paston / PA Images via Getty Images)