Drab, weary, uninspired: Manchester United hit new low at West Ham | Manchester United

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The Danakil Depression is a plane approximately 125 miles long by 35 miles wide that lies at the northern end of the Afar Triangle in Ethiopia. Formed by the divergence of three tectonic plates in the Horn of Africa, it lies 410 feet below sea level while year-round temperatures make it the hottest place on Earth. Although it was there that the 3.2million-year-old fossil of Lucy, Australopithecus afarensis, was discovered in 1974, leading some to suggest it was the cradle of humanity, its salt lakes are now widely considered the most barren place on the planet.

Or at least they were until Saturday when further evidence emerged to suggest the bleakest place on Earth, the environment most devoid of creativity and imagination and hope and joy, is Manchester United. There, too, paleoanthropologists claim, there is fossil evidence of ancient life, glory even, although if there are rare extremophilic microbes, it’s only in the kitchens.

United have gone four games without a goal for the first time since autumn 1992. If the drought continues against Aston Villa on Boxing Day, they’ll have scored less out of five than the club’s hygiene rating. They have won one of their past seven. The last time they lost this many games before Christmas was 1931. But it’s not just about results and statistics; it’s about how drab, how weary, how uninspired they appear. Alejandro Garnacho scuffed a couple of efforts straight at Alphonse Areola and worked a couple of crossing opportunities, and Kobbie Mainoo hit a low grubber the keeper shovelled wide – and that was it.

The oddity of United this season is not so much that they have been bad – that has become familiar enough over the past decade. It’s that they’ve been bad in two completely different ways. In Europe – at least before the home defeat to Bayern that was the second match of this run of four without a goal – they’ve been hysterical, scoring hatfuls, letting in even more, a rip-roaring, rambunctious rollercoaster of raucousness; domestically, they’ve just been dull, a faded ferris wheel of frustration. No side in the top three-quarters of the table has scored fewer goals than them.

But the question of how United’s Champions League group had been like that, and their league form like this, was only one of a number raised by this game. How did Erik ten Hag’s Ajax play football like that, when his United look like this? Which leads to the lesser mysteries of the individual form of just about every member of that side since. None have gone on to hit the heights that might have been expected of them; although at least there is reassurance that the first to end up in the great debilitator that is Old Trafford, Donny van de Beek, has endured the most precipitous decline.

Erik ten Hag has much to ponder after the 2-0 defeat at West Ham. Photograph: Shaun Brooks/Action Plus/Shutterstock

How could it be that West Ham’s bench cost about £40m more than United’s? How could a side that began the season with a pair of centre-backs who had won the past two World Cups now be fielding a 35-year-old who they had offloaded five years ago in Jonny Evans and a 19-year-old former France Under-16 international making his first-team debut in Willy Kambwala?

How can it be that Jarrod Bowen has scored more this season than the entire United starting XI here? What on earth has happened to Marcus Rashford? How could anybody think Antony was worth £82m? How long before Mainoo is dragged down to the same hopeless level as the rest, as it appears Rasmus Højlund has been? And how long can this go on?

West Ham did not even have to be especially good to beat them. When Bowen had a header tipped over by André Onana, it felt like coming across a withered shrub in the wilderness: unremarkable anywhere else, but thrillingly unexpected here.

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The first goal came from an oddity as well, as Onana, for once, did not suffer one of his inopportune dematerialisations when faced with a one-on-one. Unfortunately for him his continued manifestation served only to deflect the ball back on to Bowen from where it rebounded into the net. Luckless perhaps, but United have become a team to whom bad luck happens.

Ten Hag talked about the importance of scoring the first goal and how many goal-scorers he has in the side. But there is such an all-encompassing lack of confidence, energy, imagination, it is hard to see where that can come from. There is a hopelessness that smacks of a managerial endgame, if only because replacing the manager is what clubs do when form is as bad as this. Ten Hag, it feels, is on the brink of becoming yet another victim of the United malaise.

There is something magnificent in the desolation of the Danakil, in the volcanoes, the weird greens and yellows of the landscape. If there is anything similar about United, it is only in wondering just how bad this can get.

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