Erik ten Hag running out of excuses (and ideas)

Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag on the touchline during their English Premier League against Brighton. (PHOTO: Martin Rickett/PA Images via Getty Images)

IT’S all gone a bit John McEnroe for the Red Devils. The ball was in, man. Go online. Listen to Manchester United supporters. They’ve seen all the camera angles. There’s one where the spherical object is totally inside the line. Rasmus Hojlund’s goal should’ve stood. You cannot be serious.

Even Erik ten Hag threw a bone to the lunatic fringe, perhaps in an effort to distract from more pressing issues (i.e. Manchester United are a bit rubbish at the moment.)

According to the increasingly erratic manager, the Red Devils were all right against Brighton until that disallowed goal. Ten Hag’s being clever here, pandering to the flat-earthers and tapping into that eternal, paranoid tribalism of “Them” always being against “Us”.

And it worked, to a degree, the usual suspects are all over social media platforms, throwing up different camera angles with the enthusiasm of those trying to prove that the Loch Ness Monster is real.

But the ball did go out of play. Højlund’s finish was correctly chalked off. And a regressing starting XI, thrown together for £347 million was so easily outplayed by Brighton, a cohesive, entertaining starting XI put together for £17 million, that Brighton fans asked if they could play United every week.

Still, ten Hag wasn’t having it. United played well, he said. They didn’t. If they stick to the plan, they’ll turn the corner, he said. What plan? They’ve lost three English Premier League games in five games and needed a late comeback to beat a limited Nottingham Forest and a blatant penalty error to squeak past Wolverhampton Wanderers.

But still, it’s easier to persist with the performative antics of the McEnroe meltdown, to focus on elusive external forces working against the cause, rather than address the internal turmoil.

Ten Hag rightly retains the trust and goodwill of United fans and owners because he’s only the latest wide-eyed talent to be pulled into the Death Star of dispiriting football, a whopping man-made edifice designed only for power, influence and wealth, but a destabilising, weakening force for anyone trapped inside.

Ten years on from Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, Old Trafford remains a talent-stripping force for mediocrity, throwing promising careers onto a rusting conveyor belt before dumping hollowed husks at the other end. Some end up homeless (David de Gea). Some appear diminished (Paul Pogba), others look utterly shattered (Harry Maguire).

It now seems to be ten Hag’s turn. After a stellar first season, he’s facing one of those crises that afflict his hysterical workplace on a regular basis. Is it too soon? Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer both finished second and were gone a few months later. It’s never too soon for a crisis at Old Trafford.

Much of the madness is not his fault, obviously. The Glazer family continues to treat the storied club like a polystyrene box filled with durians of questionable freshness, eager to make a sale before the wet market closes. The two interested consortiums, from Britain and Qatar respectively, remain oblivious to the club’s selection process.

Uncertainty reigns, allowing Gary Neville to blame the Glazers for the ongoing mess on the pitch, which always offers plenty of room for piss-taking. Højlund’s disallowed goal? Blame the Glazers! Casemiro’s slow start to the campaign? The Glazers! Crappy tea on the terraces? Glazers!

Jadon Sancho of Manchester United arrives ahead of the English Premier League match against Nottingham Forest.

Jadon Sancho of Manchester United arrives ahead of the English Premier League match against Nottingham Forest. (PHOTO: Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)

Series of bad decisions amid Old Trafford

But there is a trickle down effect. The club’s tone-deaf handling of the Mason Greenwood case tarnished United’s reputation, ignored their female fanbase and underlined the lack of leadership at boardroom level. But it also left ten Hag in an impossible situation. Does he plan with Greenwood or without him? How does he comment publicly on the matter?

Perhaps, and this is a naive stab at amateur psychology, ten Hag’s indecision over Greenwood convinced him to go all in on Jadon Sancho, doing something quickly that Ferguson never did throughout his managerial career. Ten Hag castigated a United player’s poor attitude, to a room full of journalists no less, an unthinkable scenario for Ferguson, entirely anathema to his leadership ethos.

But ten Hag was less quick to criticise Antony, who is currently on paid leave as he faces a number of assault allegations, which might have been a legal requirement as the case continues, but the lack of consistent messaging remains exasperating.

On the pitch, ten Hag inherited a bloated, overpaid squad, with too many unwanted spare parts on long, expensive contracts and the pruning continues. But so does the stagnation. Even before recent developments, Sancho and Antony had not improved, despite their hefty transfer fees. Fred and Scott McTominay haven’t progressed either and Casemiro and Christian Eriksen appear to have gone in the other direction. While David de Gea was supposedly beyond redemption. (And on that note, André Onana may boast a decent pair of feet, but his flailing arms against Brighton suggested he’d struggle to save a PDF file.)

Injuries have ruled out Raphaël Varane, Luke Shaw, Tyrell Malacia and Mason Mount, which are mitigating factors, but ten Hag’s decision to replace Højlund with Anthony Martial prompted boos from a disillusioned crowd. The manager’s reasoning was bewildering. Højlund was not ready for a whole game, he said. He didn’t want his attacking starlet picking up a silly injury. So he sent on Martial, who has built a career on picking up silly injuries.

The booing was directed at ten Hag. The unpopular substitution was on him. The Sancho debacle was also kick-started by him. United’s manager didn’t create the machine of morale-sapping inertia that continues to chip away at Old Trafford’s foundations. But he’s hardly helping himself either.

And the banana skins keep coming. Bayern Munich are next in the Champions League. A tricky trip to Burnley follows soon after. The United manager must try to get something from both with a patchy squad, an injury crisis and a distracted boardroom.

If he doesn’t, if the chaos continues, Ten Hag may begin to wonder why he joined the broken club in the first place. More worryingly, his employers may do the same.

United’s manager didn’t create the machine of morale-sapping inertia that continues to chip away at Old Trafford’s foundations. But he’s hardly helping himself either.

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 28 books.

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