In the 19th minute on Saturday, Brentford fans let Manchester United have it.
“You’re going down with Fulham,” sang the West Londoners’ chant, the kind of giddy two-for-one celebration that can only happen when your already good side are showcased by the opposition’s incompetence.
A minute later they turned their attention to new United manager Erik ten Hag. “You’re getting fired tomorrow morning!” Trashed in the moooooorning! You’re getting fired tomorrow morning!
United are two games away from the 2022-23 season and the goodwill Ten Hag enjoyed during pre-season is fading. The 52-year-old cut a desperate figure in Saturday’s game, prompting comparisons to fellow Dutchman Frank de Boer’s calamitous five-game spell in charge of Crystal Palace at the start of the 2017-18 season.
United were dismal against Brentford, Ten Hag’s tactical plan to play from the back seemed naive against Thomas Frank’s streetwise side.
After the 4-0 loss, Ten Hag said: “It had nothing to do with tactics. The first two objectives relate to ball management and decisions. But the sight of Ivan Toney standing next to Lisandro Martinez, the 5ft 9in (175cm) centre-half signed in the summer for £47m ($57m), pointing skyward during a goal kick should have been cause for concern.
Brentford are known for being a physical side, known for their long direct passes and an impressive collection of set-piece routines.
When they beat his side Chelsea 4-1 last season, Thomas Tuchel said he included 6ft 3in midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek in his line-up to try to combat the expected aerial bombardment .
Knowing how to beat Brentford in the air is one thing. Doing so is another. In the 94 minutes here, United have been puzzled on both counts.
Back-to-back defeats to Brighton and Brentford – their next match is a visit to Liverpool on Monday August 22 – have left United bottom of the table (Manchester City are top) and Ten Hag in a difficult position. Is the former Ajax head coach another De Boer, unprepared for the peak of difficulty to move from the Eredivisie to the Premier League? Or is there something more at stake?
The Dutchman was appointed United manager on April 21.
Fifteen weeks ago, we learned that Frenkie de Jong was his number one target on the transfer market.
In early July, their main striker Cristiano Ronaldo informed the club that he would not be taking part in the pre-season tour and, days before the start of this season, it was announced that their other senior striker, Anthony Martial, would was injured in the hamstrings.
United have had weeks to equip their new manager with the proper tools, but he is now placing square pegs in round holes.
In the past seven days alone, Ten Hag has been jostling for Marko Arnautovic, only to complete an about-face, and had been asked about the future of one of his wingers, Marcus Rashford, who appears to be open to a move to Paris Saint Germain.
United have appointed a very good tactical coach but Ten Hag is beleaguered by issues that sabotage what he can do on the training ground. What he is capable of coaching the team to do is run into trouble in competitive matches, as United players seem to be afflicted with a sporting form of learned helplessness.
Weird individual errors keep happening. These events then lead to a negative spiral where players lose confidence and believe the situation is hopeless.
“You can have a good plan but we had to put the plan in the trash,” Ten Hag also said after the game, but he should be aware that his plan gave a number of players confidence in unfamiliar situations and uncomfortable. for them.
Any Manchester United starting goalkeeper is expected to perform better than David de Gea on Saturday, as is their club captain Harry Maguire, but to quote Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis, a successful strategy is “the alignment of ‘potentially unlimited aspirations with limited abilities needed.’” Ten Hag received a tough hand, but he also played it suboptimally.
The United manager has said he believes this team is capable of playing the style of football he wants, but he will need United to take smarter moves in the transfer market to deliver on his deepest plans. immediate.
Since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement after the club’s last win in 2012-13, every permanent United manager has felt like a response to the failures of his predecessor, regardless of what made each successful. them in previous clubs.
Substandard short-term solutions and confusing medium-term decisions have led to long-term malaise. Corners have been cut to such an extent that United fans are left with an unsatisfactory small circle; a feedback loop of mediocrity and chaos.
Ten Hag has a sharp tactical mind but risks becoming esoteric if he continues to pursue this style of play with this starting XI.
It is not enough for United to ‘support the manager’ with gross funding and try, with varying degrees of success, to bring in all the players they want. He must also be supported by surrounding him with footballing spirits that can cover any weakness, bolster his strengths and act as a proper sounding board in difficult times.
Two games shouldn’t ruin a season, but to quote Gaddis again, “Assuming stability is one of the ways ruins are created. Resilience adapts to the unexpected.
United are a team devoid of resilience on the pitch and an institution plagued by dysfunction outside of it.
(Top photo: Getty Images)