The sight of Manchester United’s players offering futile thanks to thousands of empty red seats was an image that defined the painful embarrassment they suffered at the hands of Manchester City.
If last season offered genuine hope United were making forward strides under the management of Erik ten Hag, with the Carabao Cup bringing their first trophy since 2017 along with a return to the Champions League, then this campaign is starting to resemble a dismal and rapid retreat.
United and their fans never enjoy defeat by Manchester City, but when it is inflicted with the ease of their rivals’ 3-0 win at Old Trafford, it increases the hurt while bringing the gulf between these two rivals into even sharper relief.
When Phil Foden tapped in City’s third ten minutes from time, Erling Haaland the provider after scoring the first two goals, the rush for the exits demonstrated that United’s fans had seen enough. Those who remained at least had the consolation of probably beating the worst of the traffic.
Old Trafford was sparsely populated when referee Paul Tierney sounded his final whistle, apart from the noise from joyous City fans in one corner revelling in heaping scorn on Ten Hag and his players.
Ten Hag and Harry Maguire were in conversation with Tierney when United’s grim spectacle concluded, presumably about City’s first-half penalty award after Rasmus Hojlund fouled Rodri, but if they were complaining those gripes rang deafeningly hollow after what Old Trafford witnessed.
The day started with a poignant tribute to the late Sir Bobby Charlton, with the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand adorned with a giant mosaic in his memory.
What followed was a chastening demonstration of just how superior City are to United. After those optimistic signs last term, which even included a Premier League win against City at Old Trafford, these are now worrying times for Ten Hag and Manchester United.
It is hard to see what Ten Hag’s plan is. There is currently no structure and identity to United. He received praise when it was due last season but must be questioned now, not just in transfer policy but also in-game management.
Here, he failed to address a glaring overload on United’s right-hand side that City exploited to devastating effect as Diogo Dalot was left brutally exposed.
There was also growing unrest among United’s supporters, understandably frustrated by the manner in which City moved the ball and their opponents around with ease, but also with the lack of urgency and intensity from their own players.
It manifested in loud jeering when young striker Hojlund was replaced by Alejandro Garnacho 17 minutes from time, the home crowd at least appreciating the Dane’s tireless endeavour.
There were even some shouts towards the directors’ box as this was not easy to take for those hoping the sight of Manchester City might galvanise United into action. Instead, they had to suffer Pep Guardiola’s side exerting complete control.
Apart from fleeting moments when Ederson saved from Scott McTominay and the disappointing Marcus Rashford pulled a great chance wide, this was as one-sided as it gets. The scoreline flattered United and there was always the impression City had several gears in reserve if required.
United had run out of ideas long before the end, but it was actually difficult to detect what their idea was at the start.
Ten Hag’s work in the transfer market will also come under scrutiny amid these struggles, with Sofyan Amrabat way off the pace and removed at half-time after being booked, while his replacement Mason Mount toiled in what has become a faltering start to his United career following his £55m move from Chelsea.
Ten Hag is also responsible for making Bruno Fernandes United’s captain, with his main contribution here being constant complaining and niggling that eventually led to an inevitable yellow card.
United were laboured in midfield, and while defender Jonny Evans should not be singled out, it was noted the last time he started a home Manchester derby was October 2011 when City won 6-1 and he was sent off.
United are missing influential defenders Lisandro Martinez and Luke Shaw through injury and there are undoubted signs of wear and tear to veterans Raphael Varane and Casemiro. This season has simply not been good enough.
There is still plenty of time to put matters right, but they are already eight points adrift of Liverpool in fourth place and struggling to make it out of their Champions League group. United’s defence of the League Cup continues at home to Newcastle United, who they beat in last season’s final, at Old Trafford on Wednesday.
Ten Hag would have been hoping to take United forward this season – he has not been short of financial backing for all the brickbats aimed at the Glazers – but the big concern is they do not look like they are standing still, they look like they are heading backwards at an alarming rate.