As Diego Simeone jogged towards the Old Trafford tunnel, the Argentine did well to dodge a number of bottles and cups that were thrown his way by furious Manchester United fans.
Simeone’s Atlético Madrid had just ended United’s last hope of winning any silverware this season in the only way a Simeone team knows how.
Cholismo, the sacred art of defensive nous and intense work ethic, had helped Atlético secure a 1-0 win and passage through to the Champions League quarterfinals and left United supporters staring at a fifth straight season without a trophy.
However, once their rage with Simeone and his team subsides, those United fans will likely realize their real anger is not with an Argentine coach and his divisive tactics, but rather with their own club.
“It’s difficult to put into words how we feel now at the moment,” goalkeeper David De Gea said after the match. “We did not do enough in both games to win it. It’s a very disappointing day for us.
“We are out of one of the most important competitions so we are very sad. Of course, it’s not good enough. It’s hard for the club, for us and the fans. It’s really hard. There are too many years without any trophies, even without fighting for trophies.
“This is where we are at the moment. It’s a difficult situation. We have to keep fighting. I feel very sad. But we were not good enough.”
After Tuesday’s defeat, interim United head coach Ralf Rangnick said “some curious refereeing decisions” were partly to blame for his team’s demise.
In truth, United was, as De Gea succinctly put it, just not good enough. Not at Old Trafford nor at the Wanda Metropolitano, where three weeks ago it looked as though the team had earned a valuable 1-1 draw.
The reality is this team hasn’t been good enough for several years now and the club finds itself in a perpetual state of failed rebuilding; waiting for another unsuccessful season to end before trying to remedy that lack of success with high-profile summer transfer signings or a new manager.
Since 2012, United’s net spend is €1.075 billion ($1.18 billion). The club has paid €1.545 billion ($1.7 billion) in transfers while receiving €470 million ($516 million) in player sales, according to study published by Switzerland-based independent research group CIES Football Observatory.
The squad United has built is unquestionably a talented one but has lacked an identity since Alex Ferguson’s departure in 2013.
For too long now, the team has relied on moments of individual brilliance to dig it out of holes – see Cristiano Ronaldo’s hat-trick against Tottenham on Saturday – and when that doesn’t come, the attack simply grinds to a halt.
The appointment of Rangnick – a manager lauded for his intense, proactive style – was supposed to help provide United with a new identity, or at least begin laying the foundations for one.
Tuesday’s game was the 20th time Rangnick had taken charge of this United team, but he’s yet to come up with a framework to get the most out of Ronaldo, Paul Pogba and Jadon Sancho.
Instead, the team continues to wander aimlessly through a barren period that is the club’s worst since the late 60s, with no apparent plan in place to help guide it to success once again.
United, which finally appointed a director of football in John Murtough in March last year, has continued to get decision after decision spectacularly wrong in recent years.
Whether it’s appointing the wrong head coach – or taking too long to sack him – or spending vast amounts of money on players who are either not good enough or do not quite fit a manager’s system, it’s easy to see why United has stagnated so badly.
The difficult part, as the club hierarchy is no doubt aware, is fixing it.
Many feel getting the next managerial appointment right is the crucial first step of setting the club back on the right path, with PSG boss Mauricio Pochettino and Ajax head coach Erik ten Hag reportedly the frontrunners.
However, it’s difficult to see either of those men succeeding where Jose Mourinho, Louis van Gaal, Ole Gunnar Solskjær and now Rangnick have failed without serious structural change.
Rangnick even admitted last month he doesn’t “really know” what Darren Fletcher’s role at the club is, after the former United midfielder was appointed the club’s first ever technical director in March 2021.
But the rebuilding of the club doesn’t end on the pitch. Last week, United revealed further plans it has to redevelop Old Trafford, which has been showing its age for several years.
The club’s chief operating officer Collette Roche said they have developed “a Masterplan for the modernization” of the famous stadium.
United fans have pleaded with the Glazer family, the club’s absent owners, to sell up for several years now, believing the Americans’ main priority is to make money, with on-pitch success a distant second.
United might not have won a trophy since 2017, but according to Forbes, the club’s value is $4.2 billion.
Since Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, United have won just three trophies – the FA Cup under Van Gaal in 2016, and the League Cup and Europa League under Jose Mourinho the following year – but none of football’s major prizes. United last won the Premier League nine years ago.
This summer may be the most important of the Glazers’ tenure.
As for coming up for winning formula for the team, United need a masterplan and quickly. If the wrong decisions are made once again, it will be near impossible for United to end this rut anytime soon.