Louis van Gaal had anticipated difficulties but nothing like this. An evening which began with Manchester United proclaiming how they had broken the British transfer record ended with a humiliating and emphatic League Cup exit for which he carries personal responsibility.
When Liverpool played Notts County at the same stage last season they played a first team, knowing the long empty weeks ahead. Van Gaal dispensed with game-changing players and instead watched a youthful defence submit itself to carnage – erring again and again to deliver United – Champions League finalists a mere four years ago – to a new and desperate low.
For older heads, the nine-year-old memory of what the League Cup Second Round feels like had not receded. It was in 1995 that United last played at this stage, losing 3-0 at home to York City, 4-3 across the two legs, and scuttling out of the competition.
This did not feel so very different. The fear which has been eating away at the fabric of the club for over a year is relentless. A starting XI containing Javier Hernandez, Danny Welbeck, Anderson and Shinji Kagawa – who all seem so transparently to be on their way out of Old Trafford if suitors can be found by Monday – is not conducive to expressive, confident football.
They began brightly enough, speculative shots from Hernandez and Nick Powell reflecting some kind of intent, but then disappeared down the familiar black hole of indecision and apathy. The MK Dons central midfield combination of Dele Alli – the locally born England under-18 international, who was being watched by Bayern Munich last night – and Darren Potter assumed a control that United could not wrest from them. Kagawa’s departure with a head injury after a clattering challenge from Alli was significant only in the opportunity it created to send in Adnan Januzaj - source of a little invention .
The goal which took the League One side in front was a metaphor for the forlorn sight that United have become. Northern Ireland’s Jonny Evans, the part of the defensive inheritance who Van Gaal seems to value most, was attempting to play the ball out of his own penalty area in the new United way when, under no real pressure, he allowed the lurking Ben Reeves to stick out a foot and intercept it. Reeves quickly found Will Grigg – another Northern Ireland man, and here on a season-long loan from Brentford – who did not waste the moment which will always live with him.
Thereafter Powell struck another sweet shot just beyond the half hour. David de Gea saved comfortably from Dean Bowditch and two fairly evenly matched teams – one with a wage bill of £180m; the other £3m – went about their business up to half time.
Van Gaal had equipped himself with very little to get himself out of this hole. Of those still on the bench, only Wilfried Zaha was a recognised elite player. It was 18-year-olds, Belgian Andreas Perreira and James Wilson, the striker in whom Ryan Giggs showed faith as interim manager, he sent in. The night could have been over before it was 50 minutes old if Evans had been penalised when the strong Bowditch’s shot inside the area struck his left arm. The home side’s appeals for a penalty were entirely valid.
United had not nearly begun to lay siege to the Dons goal when the defence capitulated in another pitiful way. The ball was conceded weakly on the right flank, allowing Danny Powell and Dean Lewington to work the ball rapidly from their own half and release Reeves down the right to despatch a cross which Grigg chested in.
It said everything about the chaos in United’s defence that Anderson was nearest to Grigg when he finished. The humiliation was complete when Reece James conceded possession and allowed George Baldock and Reeves to work the ball through the right hand channel for Benik Afobe to score once again.
Marnik Vermijl was the humiliated defender when the fourth went in – allowing a speculative long ball to strike him on the back and then finding Afobe bulldozing past him and a helpless Evans to make it four.
Van Gaal was insistent late last night that this is a matter of course and that things will turn, though precisely where United turn it is hard to know. The home side’s supporters will not forget their part in the margins of Manchester United history. The entire squad wage roster here is £50,000-a-week: a quarter of the salary Di Maria will command.