If ever there was a man grateful for some credit in the bank, it is Erik ten Hag.

Where do you even begin to explain what transpired at Anfield on Sunday? An afternoon as bonkers as it was unexpected, there’s an argument to be had over which set of fans was blindsided more by its ridiculousness. Liverpool have, by their lofty standards, had a bang average campaign, leaking goals all over the shop amid a backdrop of terrace frustration with Fenway Sports Group’s ownership.

United, by contrast, have been flying. Last week’s Carabao Cup success was a first trophy in six years, and it arrived just days after a stirring European night at Old Trafford saw an excellent Barcelona side sent packing. All of that, arguably, has been overshadowed by one of the worst days in the club’s long history, a 7-0 monstering at the hands of their most bitter enemies which dropped a bomb on the narrative that United’s years in the doldrums had come to an emphatic end.

Supporters now hold their breath as they wait to discover whether said bomb inflicts nuclear disaster on their season, or whether Ten Hag can defuse it. The United manager has projected an aura of complete control in recent weeks – almost everything he touched turned to gold. But he was rendered utterly helpless on the Anfield touchline, standing motionless for a brutal last 15 minutes as his players completely surrendered to their rampant rivals.

Liverpool have inflicted plenty pain on United in this fixture in modern times, but there was something different about this. Nobody batted an eyelid when Ralf Rangnick, in charge of an utterly broken squad, saw his team battered from pillar to post on Merseyside less than a year go. It had been clear for a long time United were gutless and rudderless, going to Anfield and getting slaughtered was simply further confirmation of the blindingly obvious.

But this? This is supposed to be a team on the up and up.

Last summer, Ten Hag paid special attention to ensuring he recruited the right personalities, as well as the right footballers. It took time, but there has clearly been a steely resolve about his team of late as they navigated a punishing run of fixtures – outlasting Barcelona, doing a number on Newcastle at Wembley, then rallying from behind to ensure West Ham did not knock them out of the FA Cup. Ten Hag himself talked up the psychological influence of Casemiro, Rafael Varane and Lisandro Martinez; proven winners bringing a champions’ mentality and big-game nous to a previously soft centred shambles.

And yet, all three were front and centre as United threw the towel in on Sunday.

Ten Hag will not panic, but such a monumental collapse might just be enough to have him question how much he really knows about this group of players. If ever he felt they no longer had results like this in them, he was clearly wrong.

Better teams than United have been chewed up and spat out at Anfield, no doubt. But as Ten Hag himself said, it was the manner of capitulation which is most alarming. United will have regrouped at half-time feeling they should at least been on the scoresheet. Within 10 minutes of the restart, they could hardly get the white flag out quickly enough.

Their defending was so bad it became comical: Liverpool were permitted to score seven goals from eight shots on target. Whenever it appeared an attack was about to fizzle out, there was a United player on standby to blunder into keeping it alive. It truly was one of the most jarring and bizarre displays from a football team you’re ever likely to see.

Were there any mitigating factors? United’s squad is too thin to forever sustain recent momentum, but explaining this away with tired legs is never going to wash at a club of such stature. Ten Hag, too, must take his share of blame. By positioning Bruno Fernandes on the left flank, the manager let a defensively suspect Trent Alexander-Arnold have the day off from fretting about who was going to run in behind him. The ‘Wout Weghorst at number 10’ experiment also failed to pay off, a move which may have made sense were United opting to play high into the Dutchman over Liverpool’s press, but they weren’t. They didn’t do much of anything, really, except invite a massacre via complete and catastrophic collective head loss.

The big question now, of course, is whether it was a particularly awful aberration or the onset of something more insidious. I understand willingness to write it off as the worst of days at the office, but some defeats are so traumatic they leave indelible marks on a group of players, and on a club. There will have been younger fans in the away end - and watching on TV from behind the sofa - whose grandchildren will still be taking stick for this. It really was that bad.

Given the progress of the past few months, nobody sane is suggesting Ten Hag be shown the door. However, it’s no exaggeration to suggest the result in isolation strays into ‘sackable offence’ territory. He won’t lose his job, nor should he, but it’s just another of countless reasons why the whole episode is so difficult to fathom.

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Are United still a poor team who have just been on a particularly good run? I’m inclined to say no. But there’s also that nagging feeling that good teams do not ever lose matches in such a disgraceful fashion. Heavy beatings still occured on occasion in the Sir Alex Ferguson era, but I cannot ever recall a side under his leadership non-performing in a manner that can only be described as ‘chucking it’.

Even the infamous 6-1 to Manchester City at Old Trafford did not carry such a heavy element of shame – United were battered that day because they were a group of 10 men trying bravely/naively to rescue a situation that was already beyond them. On Sunday, the going got tough and this current group wanted absolutely nothing to do with it. Liverpool were great, as everyone knows they can be, let’s not overlook that. But were they ‘7-0 with six goals coming in the second-half’ great?

Perhaps the safe middle ground is United have improved massively under Ten Hag, but that their starting point was so low we all overestimated the level he has elevated them to. From here, this could either play out as an agonising reality check which ultimately inspires further improvement, or completely derail all of his good work.

For an already hurting fanbase, it’s going to be a cripplingly anxious wait to find out.