You’ve read how Manchester United are as consistently inconsistent as any team in the Premier League. How their glorious highs, like a 3-2 comeback from 2-0 down against Aston Villa, give way to shoddy lows like a limp 2-1 loss to Nottingham Forest. You’ll have heard how the Tricky Trees recorded their first win over the Red Devils in 29 years. How United lost 21 games in all competitions in 2023, their worst calendar year since 1972. But what does it all mean? What has become of Manchester United?
To hear many fans talk, this is the fault of the Glazers, the claim being that they have appointed a string of managers with no connective tissue in terms of philosophy. David Moyes was as different from Erik ten Hag as Jose Mourinho was from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
The questionable recruitment has extended to the pitch. Whether you reach back to follies like Angel di Maria and Alexis Sanchez or prefer to focus on recent shambolic buys like Antony and Jadon Sancho, the club have continually got it wrong. While the owners didn’t personally scout these dodgy buys, the people they appointed did.
Whether that was former chief executive Ed Woodward playing real-life FIFA or current football director John Murtough betraying his lack of experience; United have never had the right structure in place. The ownership group's way has been overpromoting friends and confidantes into positions of footballing power without the background to handle them.
All this looks set to change when INEOS complete their purchase of 25% of the club. Billionaire Jim Ratcliffe will be handed sporting control to go with his quarter-slice of the Red Devils pie. A detailed review is underway, being led by Sir Dave Brailsford. He is the current performance director at the INEOS-owned Grenadiers cycling team as well as director of sport at the company’s Ligue 1 club, OGC Nice. It is expected that Brailsford will recommend the hiring of an experienced sporting director.
But United’s most visible problems this season have come on the field of play. Obviously the Glazers can cop some of the blame for the malaise on the pitch. But not all of it. It is hard to argue that United should not be doing far better than they are considering the squad they have.
Yes, injuries have been a factor. Casemiro, Mason Mount, Luke Shaw, Rasmus Hojlund, Raphael Varane, Lisandro Martinez and Tyrell Malacia are just some of the players to spend time on the shelf this season. But other clubs have injuries. Tottenham Hotspur are hitting form with multiple first-teamers out, for example.
No, United’s problems go deeper than either the Glazers or the treatment room. Manager Erik ten Hag is getting it wrong far too often. You only have to reach back as far as the Forest game for an example. Teenage midfielder Kobbie Mainoo was hooked at half time in favour of Scott McTominay. The Scotland international is the club’s top scorer this season but his fundamental lack of midfield nous saw United overran and Forest emerge victorious.
Ten Hag’s substitutions have been poor, but he’s often pushed into making them by a faulty starting lineup. The Red Devils play like a team who don’t know what they want to be. The former Ajax manager talks about transitions, but United are ponderous on the break. They have tricky wingers like Antony and direct inside forwards like Marcus Rashford, yet they are often blunt against a low block. Their midfield is featureless and cannot either maintain possession or win it back with any urgency.
United in Ten Hag’s first season were a work in progress. They started to show impressive traits as they adopted their new manager’s game. It wasn’t quite Ajax but it was more structured than Solskjaer’s counter-attacking reliance. But compared to Ten Hag this season, the departed Norwegian seems like a tactical visionary.
Some fans are frustrated, but many preach leniency. This isn’t a bad idea. While other United bosses were not afforded such clemency from fans, it makes sense that supporters don’t want to see a Chelsea or Watford-style revolving door installed at Old Trafford. The argument of “Who do you replace him with?” also makes patience a virtue in this case.
But should that be enough to keep a manager in his job when he routinely fails? That Carabao Cup and top-four finish last season seem a long way away now. United can only offer temporary reminders of their quality. Even then, as against Villa, they can never make them last for 90 minutes. These players aren’t good enough to challenge for the title. But even accounting for injuries, this side should not have lost nine out of 20 Premier League games this term.
For now, INEOS’ transaction buys Ten Hag time. But once Ratcliffe has his feet under the table, this form will not be tolerated for much longer. With no playing identity, poor results and a raft of manager-led transfers that have flopped, change is coming. Ten Hag must wonder if he’ll be an active part of it, or merely the subject of it.
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