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Man United, ten Hag’s Embarrassing Start Comes As No Surprise

Sports Illustrated logo Sports Illustrated 8/14/2022 Jonathan Wilson

Saturday’s 4–0 loss to Brentford exposed the Red Devils for what they are: a club without a plan run by a manager with misplaced tactics.

The postwar nadir, everybody has always said, was the 5–0 defeat to Crystal Palace in 1972, but that may have a challenger now. Saturday’s 4–0 defeat to Brentford was epochally bad.

It wasn’t just the scoreline—although letting in more goals against Brentford in a 25-minute spell than you’ve conceded against them in the previous 84 years is hard to avoid—but the nature of the performance. United was insipid, lacking confidence and conviction, and devoid of a functional game plan. And the fear must be that next week, when United faces Liverpool, it will get worse.

It was that defeat at Palace that prompted the dismissals of both the manager Frank O’Farrell and the wayward superstar George Best (although he subsequently returned to the club) and the appointment of the abrasive Tommy Docherty. There was a recognition then that, even four years after winning the European Cup, the task was enormous. Docherty’s first full season ended in relegation, but he was kept on and allowed to continue his rebuild, finishing third in 1976 and then lifting the FA Cup in 1977 before being sacked over his affair with the physio’s wife.

But ten Hag is two games into his reign, and he’s the first United manager to lose his first two games since John Chapman in 1921. There is a wayward superstar in Cristiano Ronaldo who needs to be offloaded before any real rebuild can begin, but ten Hag’s position is surely not yet under threat. Who else, after all, could be expected to manage a squad as dysfunctional as this? Who would want to?

There has been a lot of criticism of the Glazers and a lack of investment. That is true in terms of infrastructure and backroom staff. Old Trafford is old-fashioned and crumbling, the train facilities have barely changed in 15 years, the academy is struggling. If United has a scouting and recruitment department, it is largely being ignored: Every summer target has been either somebody ten Hag knew from his days in the Eredivisie or somebody famous for not merely being talented but also wayward.

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But money has been spent on the team; it’s just that it’s been spent spectacularly badly, which is what will happen when your run of managers goes: continuity Scot, aging Dutch purist, pragmatic nihilist, cheery former player, academic who pioneered pressing in Germany but doesn’t really like coaching.

And in that, Brentford stood as the perfect rebuke. Brentford’s team cost less than an eighth of United’s, but it has been spent intelligently and to a plan. Brentford presses; its team is adept at pressing. ten Hag, presumably, would like to press, but Cristiano Ronaldo will not and Marcus Rashford seemingly cannot. Brentford registered three times as many pressures in the final third as United in Saturday.

ten Hag may or may not be the right man for the job. He has very little experience outside the Netherlands and over the last week has looked helpless. But what is he supposed to do? He was presumably brought in to try to impose an Ajax-style system at United. But Ajax presses and he has a forward line that doesn’t press. Ajax passes the ball out from the back, but United cannot do that because David de Gea is not comfortable with the ball at his feet, which is why he has slipped out of the Spain reckoning. United cannot break the press with long passes from the keeper, as Manchester City or Liverpool can, so if it is pressed hard it tends to panic.

Lisandro Martinez is 5’9”. Perhaps in a confident team that dominates games, such a short center back be accommodated. But the risk is always that he will be out-jumped by Ben Mee. What was the plan in signing Christian Eriksen? So far he has played as a false nine and as the deepest-lying midfield, both badly. But where was he expected to fit? As a backup to Bruno Fernandes, perhaps, in which case why have both started both games? Perhaps it’s a simple case of numbers: Five senior players have left and only two have been brought in, but that only highlights the fiasco of United’s recruitment.

Ralf Rangnick spoke last season of the scale of the problem facing United and suggested there might need to be as many as 10 new signings added, which demands the question: “Who on Earth is he keeping?” But the fundamental point is true: First, there must be a plan that is adhered to for a reasonable period, and then there must be a wholesale restructuring of the squad to facilitate that.

Is ten Hag the man to enact that? At the moment it’s very hard to tell and, given United’s inability to sign anybody, possibly irrelevant.

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