Manchester United fans have become all too used to bruising and humiliating displays in recent years, but even for the standards set by David Moyes, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Ralf Rangnick et al, the 7-0 mauling against Liverpool was a particularly staggering loss.
Not least because it was the club’s biggest-ever defeat in the Premier League, just the fourth time that United have conceded seven in a game in their entire history - and the first in 92 years. Yet, Sunday was like a chapter from another book, somehow accidentally placed into the 2022/23 storyline at Old Trafford. The Red Devils had gone into the game as the in-form side, one who have proved capable of overcoming adversity as shown by recent hard-fouth victories over Barcelona, Newcastle United and West Ham United in three separate competitions.
Central to this upgraded side have been leaders Raphael Varane, Lisandro Martinez and Casemiro, and it’s the presence of the trio - and their wilting under the Anfield spotlight - that may concern Erik ten Hag most.
Another commanding figure in the United dressing room is Bruno Fernandes, the de-facto captain this season with Harry Maguire habitually relegated to a place on the bench. While ex-skippers Gary Neville and Roy Keane watched on with disdain, Fernandes put in a pitiful performance that lacked passion, charisma or inspiration. This was a display more akin to a petulant child than a Manchester United captain.
This was most embodied in the latter stages, when teenage Stefan Bajcetic, making just his 18th senior career appearance, skipped past the experienced Fernandes in the latter stages. Rather than track back and attempt to dispossess the Spaniard, a winging Fernandes stopped still and then merely trotted forlornly behind as Bajcetic drove into the final third.
It was a low point of an evening where Fernandes frequently failed to track back and help his defence, fell to the ground holding his face after being brushed by the pinky finger of Ibrahima Konate, impertinently hit out at the the referee’s assistant, was seen repeatedly gesticulating to team-mates, and also appeared to moan towards the bench during one of Ten Hag’s substitutions.
The United boss labelled the performance as ‘unprofessional’ after the match, an accusation no doubt directed at Fernandes more than anyone else. It’s also not the first time this problem has arisen with the Portugal international, who was criticised by Gary Neville last season, along with fellow good egg Cristiano Ronaldo, for repeatedly complaining to team-mates.
"And there’s Fernandes’ whinging too. They’re the two senior players. It’s devastating for younger players when the two best players are looking at every other player like they’re not good enough,” Neville said in December 2021.
Despite Fernandes’ view that others are evidently to blame, few in United history have been on the end of so many disheartening defeats. He played 90 minutes in the 6-3 loss to Manchester City this season, started in the 5-0 home defeat to Liverpool and was replaced in the humiliating 6-1 thumping by Tottenham Hotspur in 2020. There’s a theme emerging here…
That’s not to say Fernandes should solely take the blame for Sunday’s defeat or the other five-plus goal losses he’s been involved in, but there’s also no denying that the 28-year-old, who is all too willing to point the finger at others, has lots to answer for himself.
Indeed, at the start of his time at United, Fernandes was regularly the team’s saving grace, the one-man warrior who was single-handedly winning games. But the midfielder’s goals and assists have steadily been declining for the club since his outstanding first 12 months at Old Trafford, and Ten Hag now often deploys him from the right-hand side - hardly a badge of honour for any unstoppable no.10.
To claim Fernandes’ attitude is a pressing issue that Ten Hag must address would be an exaggeration - in fact, his performances in the last six weeks have generally been good - but a stand-in skipper should spur on others rather than heighten an already volatile situation.
Fernandes has done too much of the latter, a trait which could impact his long-running audition to replace Maguire as United’s new permanent captain.