Paul Pogba arrived at Manchester United for £89m in the summer of 2016. United, they later said, were thrilled with the social media impact made by a piece of business they believed had been heard around the world.
Last night, almost six years on, the World Cup winning midfielder limped off the Anfield turf in the first half with an injury that may signal the end of his time at the club. Some of his club’s supporters behind the net in to which Liverpool scored two decisive early goals jeered him as he went. Paul Pogba. A broken once great footballer symbolic of a broken once great football club.
United have been a relatively poor team for a while now but here on Merseyside arrived what felt like yet another new and unforgettable low. They were not so much beaten here but dismissed.
Manchester United weren’t just beaten by Liverpool on Tuesday night – they were dismissed
Liverpool were imperious at Anfield against a United team who were not remotely competitive
For all but a 15 minute spell immediately before Liverpool’s third goal midway through the second half, Ralf Rangnick’s United team were not remotely competitive. Not in the football they played, the yards they ran or the intent with which they arrived. On the lengthening list of dismal United showings of recent years, this rancid effort must now sit skulking pretty near the top.
Liverpool were imperious for a while and then functionally effective for the remainder. It was more than enough.
In one early vignette, the Liverpool midfielder Thiago Alcantara applied a touch to the ball so imperious that his own team-mate Andrew Robertson applauded him.
United? At that stage of the proceedings they were ambling around as though they hardly knew each other and as the club’s woes have deepened in recent years so has the unsparing commentary of those who once made the club so powerful.
It was harrowing stuff for United, who played as though they barely knew each other
Here, Liverpool’s evisceration of their great rivals on the field was nothing compared to what Gary Neville offered them on television.
‘I have been watching Manchester United for 42 years this is honestly as bad as it gets,’ said the former Old Trafford captain.
For United, this was truly harrowing stuff and the nature of the first two goals will have been felt deep in the guts of all those who care.
The first was shambolic, Liverpool tearing United open as Phil Jones – recalled to the team from absolutely nowhere by Rangnick – found himself lost in a fog of crippling uncertainty.
United are lacking a player who can open teams up and Bruno Fernandes is lacking appetite
The second, meanwhile, was just achingly beautiful. The heavily spun chip over the top by Sadio Mane was the kind of pass that Eric Cantona may once have played at Old Trafford. Or maybe Paul Scholes.
Who is left to do that kind of thing for United now? Bruno Fernandes perhaps?
In order for that to happen the gifted Portuguese would have to show some appetite and he appeared to have absolutely none at all here. His late hack at Trent Alexander Arnold was an act of faux aggression presented only for show and was all the more contemptible for it.
This was a United team comprising passengers, some of them already on the journey out of the club.
Ralf Rangnick was supposed to impose himself on this squad but he just looks out of his depth
United’s match day squad had buried in its ranks five players unlikely to be at the club next season. Viewed like that, what chance did they really have against such ravenously talented opposition?
Jones – hooked at half-time as Rangnick tore up his hopeless first half system – Pogba, Nemanja Matic, Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata are all expected to leave this summer and then there is the manager.
Rangnick was expected to impose something of himself on this team when he arrived last November. But the German and his eclectically assembled coaching staff have failed palpably.
United have arguably grown worse under his management than they were under his predecessor Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Rangnick has increasingly looked like a man out of his depth in the Premier League and the argument for him being retained as a football consultant when Erik Ten Hag arrives as manager next season grows weaker all the time.
United have possibly grown worse under Rangnick than they were under Solskjaer with their top four bid falling apart
This, remember, was a night that began with United in touch with the fourth Champions League position. They had, in theory at least, two things to play for. Not only could United do something to derail the title bid of a rival that had actually conceded seven goals in their last three games, they could also breathe some late life in to their own season.
But absolutely none of that was reflected in United’s play. Deprived of key players by injuries and of Cristiano Ronaldo by a personal tragedy, this was not United’s strongest team. But this is a club that no longer has any strength. No strength in depth, no strength of mind.
Over the course of two league games against Liverpool this season, United have lost 9-0. That is a statistic every bit as alarming as it sounds.