The latest Manchester United defeat gave rise to a lot of emotions among the club’s fanbase this past weekend, namely despair, anguish and, most of all, anger.
Brighton’s 3-1 win showed up the Red Devils’ incredibly inefficient spending in the transfer market, their lack of guile, and that maybe they haven’t made as much progress under Erik ten Hag as they thought they had. Most worryingly, the result wasn’t even all that surprising.
Since Alex Ferguson retired as manager, Manchester United have been repeating the same cycle that we are all too familiar with: hire a new head coach, results improve, back the head coach with new signings, team regresses, sack head coach. Rinse and repeat.
So you can understand why United fans would be fed up at this point, ten years on. Equally, you can understand why there would be genuine optimism Ten Hag would finally break that cycle when he arrived at Old Trafford last summer.
After all, here was a strong minded manager with an identity; his Ajax side not only played attractive football, but they played with a strong sense of purpose, impressed in Europe and won trophies, too. United were crying out for a figure like him for far too long.
After a rocky first half of the season, the Dutchman’s ideas started to have a real impact, as they won the EFL Cup, reached the FA Cup final and finished inside the top four. A huge improvement from the previous campaign.
The good vibes have not carried over into this season, however. United have lost three of their opening five Premier League games for the first time ever, their midfield looks shot, and in the standings they’re closer to the Championship than they are the Champions League.
And that’s before we even get to the off field matters, which have mushroomed in recent months. The Mason Greenwood situation, in which charges of attempted rape and coercion were dropped, was handled poorly by the club before he was shipped out on loan to Getafe.
Antony has also been accused of sexual assault by three separate women, which he strongly denies, and has been put on paid leave while he defends himself against the allegations.
Then there was the very public falling out between Ten Hag and Jadon Sancho. The manager claimed that the winger was not in the matchday squad against Arsenal due to below-par performance in training, while reports claim his time-keeping has also been an issue.
Sancho took to social media to respond to the claims by calling them “completely untrue”, tweeting that he was being scapegoated. He has since deleted the tweet, but has reportedly refused to apologise for it and, subsequently, is training alone.
During this time it has also been revealed that when Ten Hag told the media last December that Sancho was absent due to “physical and mental factors”, it was done so without Sancho’s prior knowledge or permission.
Last week Ten Hag said he was putting the team “above everything else” by dropping Sancho, adding that “there was no good culture before last season so (my job was) to set good standards” at Old Trafford.
While it is noble to set standards, it’s another thing entirely to publicly torch one’s relationship with a very expensive player at the exact same time that an even more expensive player (who happens to play in the same position) is currently indisposed. There’s a reason why managers utter meaningless pablum on the regular in press conferences.
Sancho has stagnated at Old Trafford, and his reaction to Ten Hag’s comments was ill-advised, but he’s far from the first big money signing to flounder at the club. Indeed, it seems inevitable that players that arrive for huge transfer fees are doomed to fail: Angel Di Maria, Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez, Anthony Martial, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Donny van de Beek, the list goes on and on.
Supporters would have you believe that the individual players lacked the necessary ability and fortitude to cut it at Manchester United Football Club™, but at what stage do you look at the ever growing list of transfer flops and wonder whether it is in fact the club that is failing them?
It is this writer’s long held opinion that the squad has been held back by the lack of a hands-on head coach who can improve them in training every day. It’s no coincidence that Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino have been able to get the very best out of their players during their careers.
United felt they finally got one in that mould when they hired Ten Hag, who has received a lot of praise for turning the ship around last year. Though, a cynic may point out two big factors that contributed to a better than expected season; Marcus Rashford’s impressive goalscoring run in the latter half of the campaign, and several big teams all falling apart at once.
Ten Hag is gambling that he will retain the backing of the club, and the supporters, but that only holds for as long as you are winning matches.