Erik ten Hag: you have three weeks to save Manchester United’s season. Sound ridiculous after only 90 minutes of Premier League action, even if that was a dire 2-1 home defeat by Brighton on Sunday – their first ever home loss against those opponents in 113 years?
Of course it does, but this is the glaring truth that faces the new manager. And it certainly does not help that Ten Hag’s ability to rebuild an embarrassingly mediocre squad is materially affected by two branches of the executive: the smarts of football director, John Murtough, and the desire of the Glazer family to splurge a serious amount of cash.
The capitulation on Sunday was as if there has not been four months-plus since Ten Hag’s appointment as manager to overhaul the squad, as if last season did not end with the 1-0 defeat at Crystal Palace on 22 May and Ralf Rangnick’s tenure as interim head coach concluding with United in sixth, 35 yawning points behind the champions Manchester City. Brighton’s visit was akin to match No 39 in an ongoing sorry campaign and the latest low point in the club’s post-Sir Alex Ferguson era. The evidence is searing: nothing much has changed since the dog days of last term.
When Ten Hag was appointed on 21 April, the gun was fired on a fresh recruitment drive. The prime target was Frenkie de Jong. Murtough and the Glazers had a relative age to sign the Barcelona playmaker or walk away at a judicious juncture if, say, due diligence found that he may be reluctant to join, or there was an outstanding issue of £17m in deferred wages.
But, no. Instead Ten Hag, Murtough and the Glazers continued with the pursuit of De Jong – a “game of poker”, as characterised by one club executive – up to and beyond the debacle on Sunday with him still a Barcelona player and the percentage chance of signing him dwindling to single figures.
There have been some signings: Christian Eriksen (free), Lisandro Martínez (£48.3m) and Tyrell Malacia (£13m). But with only Eriksen and Martínez starting against Brighton, the team that took to the Old Trafford pitch on Sunday had an all-too familiar, stale feel.
Where De Jong would have lined up, there was instead the functional pairing of Fred and Scott McTominay in a team without Raphaël Varane and Cristiano Ronaldo, the latter coming on as a second-half substitute. It was a lineup pockmarked with mediocrity.
David de Gea can stop shots admirably but is a liability under the high ball and his questionable ability to fashion long-range passes like Ederson was illuminated by one agricultural hoof straight out of play. Diogo Dalot, the right-back, can dither, as was the case when nearly allowing a goal to be scored 15 seconds into the contest. Harry Maguire, retained as captain by Ten Hag, was caught out of position, as he too often is. And if Luke Shaw is of the requisite ability to be a starter for United, Marcus Rashford is very much in the last‑chance saloon in that regard.
Can Ten Hag actually improve any or all of the above? On the evidence of Sunday, the answer is no. But it is his job to do so. Just as Murtough’s is to produce viable alternatives to the want‑away Ronaldo beyond Marko Arnautovic or line up Adrien Rabiot as an alternative to De Jong. The Juventus midfielder’s history of ill-discipline makes him a quaint choice for the martinet‑like Ten Hag.
One test is this: would Pep Guardiola or Jürgen Klopp go for the same players as United are currently doing? If the answer is a negative then they should not be considered, or what is the point in trying to compete with the best two teams in the land?
But, here, we come to the question of the owners: are they really serious about challenging the City-Liverpool hegemony? It is nearly a decade since United were last champions and with only three trophies won in that time, the answer is surely “no”. There is the mountain of debt loaded on the club by the owners – nearly £500m as of the end of last year – and there is the series of failed managers since Ferguson, plus the roll call of middling signings of which those Ten Hag has inherited are merely the latest crop. All of this has to be termed, politely, as mismanagement.
When Sheikh Mansour purchased City 14 years ago the club was transformed by the personnel and structure his ownership put in place. The result: six titles, two FA Cups and six League Cups. When Fenway Sports Group became proprietors of Liverpool in 2010, the same occurred, clear and decisive improvements in personnel and structure resulting in success: a first title for 30 years plus the Champions League, Club World Cup, FA and League Cups. Malcolm Glazer acquired United in 2005 but he inherited the genius Ferguson who had already been in place for 19 years. When the Scot left the decline began: the capitulation to Brighton was the club in microcosm.
There are three weeks left of the transfer window and United desperately need to act in the market. But for Ten Hag to truly prosper, the structural fault lines that run deep at the club also need addressing, and almost certainly via a change of ownership. That is something the Dutchman cannot affect.