An evening that had almost everything left United with nothing, and looking so unconvincing. It wasn’t quite defeat from the jaws of victory but farce from the semblance of competence.
United somehow lost 4-3 in Copenhagen to leave themselves in danger of going out at the group stage for the third time in eight years. They are currently bottom of the group, but that only comes after they just bottomed out. United had been leading mere minutes from the end of normal time in both halves and, incredibly, twice went in behind. The second was of course the one that mattered, as Ten Hag’s side disappeared from view to the soundtrack of raucously celebrating Copenhagen fans. This was one of the greatest nights of their history. It was one of United’s most miserable recent results, which is saying something.
There were mitigating factors, such as Marcus Rashford’s contentious red card, but they don’t fully explain this. It is why the word “somehow” does a lot of the heavy lifting here, in the way United’s ponderous midfield didn’t.
The blunt truth was that this brought together many of the problems Ten Hag has been enduring from this season. Above anything, beyond the lack of tactical idea, there was the lack of conviction.
That’s where the biggest issue lies. It just should never have got to this in the modern Champions League against a club as moderately resourced as Copenhagen. It should never be the case that a serial Champions League winner like Raphael Varane offers up a late pass like that. It said so much about the game, and what was wrong.
The manner of their final two match-winning goals were so easy, and the most damning aspect of that was they almost represented a mirror of how the game started.
The defeat was all the more galling because of how good it looked. United were through and ahead without even doing too much. Aaron Wan-Bissaka was presented with a route down the right that saw Scott McTominay free right by the goal. He so easily squared for Rasmus Hojlund to just slot in. The young Dane was back where he grew up and making himself at home again.
The second was an even easier finish, although did admittedly require more graft to get there.
It had also come out of a situation where there was a warning for United. Copenhagen were beginning to get at their defence more. Openings were appearing. Through that, though, a massive opening appeared behind them. From one defensive clearance, Alejandro Garnacho just surged forward to force a save from Kamil Grabara but there was Hojlund to just tap it in again. It looked so easy but of course came from a pounding run as the rest of the Copenhagen defence was concentrating on Garnacho.
That was an admittedly rare burst, though. It was conspicuous even before that goal that United were trying to cautiously control the game. It was like Ten Hag was trying to build confidence in the gameplan again. They were so studiously keeping possession and looking to construct moves, but without too many strides.
That made what followed all the more ironic. The game quickly went out of all control. Perhaps the two are connected. It might not have got to that had they seized the initiative. But they were 2-0 ahead. It should have been safe.
It ended up coming down to an interpretation over Marcus Rashford’s level of control. Either way, the referee judged it was a red card, and off the forward went.
That happened at 42 minutes, which might have been time enough for United to just see it to half-time. There were instead a massive 13 minutes of stoppage time, although two of those were admittedly for moments unrelated to play. One was when a supporter ran on with a Palestinian flag. Another, shortly afterwards, was when a different fan had to be tended to by medics. The stadium announcer mercifully stated soon afterwards that he was awake and well.
All of that still meant there were more than 20 minutes for United to play through until the break, but they began to fold with alarming speed. Diogo Goncalves had already hit the bar with a free-kick. On exactly 45 minutes, he squared for Mohamed Elyounoussi to finish. The Copenhagen crowd had already been buoyant, especially behind that goal, but they were by now electric.
There was that sense of opportunity.
It was far from the last time that was to happen. It was also a moment that brought another debatable decision - although this admittedly the least of them. The ball struck Harry Maguire’s hand in the area, and Goncalves struck his penalty well.
There were a mere 10 minutes between Rashford’s red and the penalty decision.
Making the result even worse, they were then granted a reprieve through a decision that was far more debatable. There was another handball that can only be described as a “Champions League decision”. Bruno Fernandes at least ensured the penalty was beyond doubt, smashing it into the top corner.
This, with 10 men, was when Ten Hag’s more cautious control might have been warranted. They should have just seen the game out in a professional and tactical manner.
That’s just now how you can describe United at the moment, though. They have persistently been playing with the fear that it can all suddenly go wrong, as if one bad moment can lead to an entire bad game. So it was.
There was another lightning quick collapse, the goals even easier than those Hojlund had plundered in the first half. On 83 minutes, Rasmus Falk crossed for Lukas Lerager to finish from close range. On 87, substitute Roony Bardghji smashed home a deserved goal that saw the Parken Stadion erupt.
The game ended with Copenhagen, and their budget that is a fraction of United’s, just playing the ball around with ease.
The next game away to Galatasaray now might be one the entire season – and potentially Ten Hag’s future - hinges on.