Manchester City (6-3 away), Liverpool (7-0 away) and now 3-0 at Sevilla: the Spanish side join the roll call of those this season to embarrass Erik ten Hag’s Manchester United seriously in a high-stakes game.
José Luis Mendilibar’s team stand 13th in La Liga but were handed the initiative early on by the hapless Harry Maguire, whose annus horribilis may have reached a nadir in Andalucía. Eight minutes in and the captain’s darkest nightmare became true, unwanted real life. What unfolded seemed to begin in agonising slow-motion before speeding up to compound the pain. It was the kind of error that has made the 30-year-old a reject for Ten Hag: close to his area Maguire, perhaps arrogantly, demanded the ball from David de Gea, then regretted it immediately as on receiving it near-panic set in.
Suddenly Erik Lamela, Lucas Ocampos and Youssef En-Nesyri were a three-man pincer movement squeezing Maguire, whose attempted out-ball to Aaron Wan-Bissaka was closed off. In ran En-Nesyri, who collected the rebound that pinged off Lamela and Maguire was left a witness to the mess he had engineered, the expression all too familiar from a footballer who has become, cruelly or not, a byword for defensive calamity.
Students of body language might have earlier spied pensiveness in Maguire’s demeanour during the pre-game lineup as he contemplated an opportunity to shine in the injury-enforced absences of Raphaël Varane and Lisandro Martínez. Victor Lindelöf was offered the same chance, too, as the other replacement. The Englishman and the Swede were paired in central defence here for only a sixth time under Ten Hag, for whom a favoured trope is that “in top football you must be ready”. This Europa League quarter-final second leg, the tie poised at 2-2 at kick-off, offered an acid test of how prepared United were.
Prepared to forget the last minutes of last week’s first match when Tyrell Malacia and Maguire inadvertently beat De Gea to stuff up a two-goal advantage. Prepared to overcome the absence of the suspended playmaker and team totem, Bruno Fernandes. And prepared to thwart Sevilla, the record six-times winners, with a rearguard missing Luke Shaw, Varane and Martínez.
Shaw’s replacement at left-back, Diogo Dalot, was a first-team regular on the right of the rearguard so someone who Ten Hag could draft in with confidence. Regarding Maguire and Lindelöf there was less surety as to how they could deal with the cauldron of the Estadio Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuán. A flying Lamela elbow floored the skipper but he was up instantly to go again, shaking the blow off. Then Marcão crashed Marcel Sabitzer into the hoardings and Maguire was in uber-leadership mode, racing over to Artur Dias to inform the referee he would not countenance any more such treatment being dished out to his team.
But next came the foul-up that gifted Sevilla their early lead and had United heading out of Europe unless a spark could be found. As with Maguire’s own goal at Old Trafford, he was again out of fortune as well as out of the form required for elite football.
When Casemiro later likewise handed possession to the home side and Ocampos subsequently put the ball in the net the Brazilian escaped because Marcos Acuña was ruled offside – it was tight, maybe even wrong, but when your luck is in, it is in.
At the interval Ten Hag hooked Jadon Sancho and Wan-Bissaka for Marcus Rashford and Shaw. While this threw up a question of why both were deemed unable to start but fit enough for a whole second half, disaster struck moments later. This time Lindelöf was hardly blameless: Ivan Rakitic’s corner sailed past the defender, who should have got closer to Loïc Badé and, with Casemiro also guilty of the same charge, the Sevilla player beat De Gea via his shoulder.
You could make a fair stab at what Ten Hag was internalising on seeing this and it would be how in “top football this cannot happen”, as a second goal had been conceded due to slipshod defending. The sight of Anthony Martial collecting a latest injury in a season wrecked by them confirmed this as a torrid evening in southern Spain. But could United sink further? Yes, they could, as De Gea committed one of those blunders that have become a motif of his career, somehow squirting a clearance straight to En-Nesyri, who drilled the ball home into an empty, inviting goal.
De Gea was poker-faced but now the question is how Ten Hag picks up his charges for Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final against Brighton at Wembley. One for the close season is who, of Maguire and Lindelöf, may be sold. The word is it could well be the former. If it is Maguire there may be private relief as he appears a shot footballer, who is unable to rediscover the quality that led United to buy him for £80m in August 2019. He is suspended for Brighton – there may be relief at this, too.