MANCHESTER United’s astonishing fall may be epitomised by one game, a specific moment in fact, when quiet optimism suddenly gave way to a dramatic decline.
But it didn't involve the Red Devils, not the squad at least, just a pair of substitutions.
On 11 July 2021, two England players warmed up on the touchline. The game clicked towards the 120th minute. Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford were coming on for a single purpose. They were going to end too many years of hurt.
They were taking penalties and England were taking home the Euro 2020 trophy.
The pull of destiny seemed irresistible. Manchester United’s stars were all aligning. In defence, a dependable Harry Maguire and an improved Luke Shaw had steered England towards the final, at Wembley, in front of a post-lockdown full house.
Football was coming home. The Red Devils were leading the way.
Sancho’s transfer from Borussia Dortmund to United had been announced less than two weeks before he ran out to take his penalty in the final shootout. He was joining an awakening giant. United had just finished second in the English Premier League.
His successful penalty felt preordained.
Rashford’s penalty felt like a foregone conclusion. The young forward was already defeating the British government in his quest to feed the poor. Defeating the Italians felt a breeze in comparison.
But he missed. So did Sancho. The Euro 2020 final ended in heartbreak and vicious abuse. Rashford hasn’t played for England since. Sancho has appeared just once.
Yesterday, Three Lions manager Gareth Southgate acknowledged, rather bluntly for a man who looks like he should be wearing a name tag at an IT conference, that he had no real incentive to pick either of them.
No one saw this coming a year ago. At the end of the Euro 2020 final, United had four players on the Wembley pitch and the promise of an EPL title challenge ahead of them. Today, Maguire is United’s only representative in the England squad.
Even now, a year later, it’s hard to overstate United’s precipitous fall. There’s still a whiff of Trumpian denial about the shambolic escapades of the last 12 months, a feeling perhaps that, well, things could have been worse.
Could they though? Poor Rashford arrives at neighbourhood schools to promote his charities with a jaunty confidence that he rarely turns up with in penalty boxes.
Southgate has written him off for England, for now at least. At United, his former manager, Ralf Rangnick, was similarly unenthused, suggesting Rashford’s solution to a lack of game time might be to leave.
Rangnick’s criticisms can be discarded, to a degree, because the permanently incensed coach had turned into a surreal hybrid of the Joker and Johnny Rotten, calling for the house to be burned down after helping to set it ablaze in the first place.
But Rashford did toil in vain. The weary forward looked like the oldest 24-year-old in the world. His confidence appeared shattered, his patchy form undeniable. But Rangnick’s inability to establish a workable pattern of play – like Ole Gunnar Solskjaer before him - hardly helped.
Sancho was similarly unlucky to leave a happy family dynamic in Borussia Dortmund to join the dysfunctional, broken home at Old Trafford. In Germany, he thrived alongside familiar, maturing personnel like Erling Haaland and Jude Bellingham. At United, every fixture is date night with Forrest Gump and a box of chocolates. He never knows what he’s going to get.
The 21-year-old has yet to settle on a position. He was signed to play on the right, but functioned better in a malfunctioning set-up on the left, which leaves United in the market for a new signing to slot into the position that Sancho was signed for. It’s all very confusing.
Having benefited from Dortmund’s young players’ project, Sancho arrived at Old Trafford almost fully formed, a fledgling giant in a teen’s clothing with no obvious weakness. But he cut a forlorn figure last season, looking for coaching support worthy of his potential.
As United’s new manager, Erik ten Hag’s priority is not necessarily new signings, but getting a tune out of broken instruments. He needs to reset and return his fragile underlings to a time before missed penalties, shattered confidence and unfocused coaching.
Ten Hag must take a brittle forward like Rashford, who managed just four EPL goals last season, and turn him into Sebastien Haller.
After a poor spell at West Ham United, Haller signed for ten Hag’s Ajax looking to resurrect his career. He scored 34 goals in 43 games for Ajax last season, a striker reborn.
Ten Hag has pulled off similarly successful salvage operations on the likes of Daley Blind and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, through a consistent, attacking system of play that favoured his players’ preferred positions. Rashford makes no secret of his desire to cut inside from the left, an area that Sancho often occupied last season, so something might have to give.
Under ten Hag, Rashford and Sancho will finally have everything, except excuses. It really is up to them now. The road to Qatar is still open, but only just.
Realistically, the pair have five months to prove themselves. Southgate must finalise his World Cup squad then. He’s certainly not interested now, despite England’s failure to score in their last three fixtures.
And ten Hag will have no place for Rashford and, to a lesser extent, Sancho if they do not eventually flourish in an accommodating, nurturing environment, which promises to be heavy on organisation, motivation and personal expression, but light on melodrama and sulky superstars flouncing off the pitch.
After a year to forget, there is the hope of a season to remember, one of support, recovery and the full restoration of powers for two of the most likeable lads at United. Under ten Hag, Rashford and Sancho will finally have everything, except excuses.
It really is up to them now. The road to Qatar is still open, but only just.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.
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