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EPL TALK: Erik ten Hag fighting for Manchester United job amid quagmire of mediocrity

Defeats in upcoming clashes against Bayern Munich, Liverpool would make the Dutch manager's position untenable

Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag acknowledges the fans following their Premier League match against Bournemouth at Old Trafford.
Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag acknowledges the fans following their Premier League match against Bournemouth at Old Trafford. (PHOTO: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

INSANITY is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results at Old Trafford. But that’s where we are. The doom loop continues at the theatre of the absurd, a place where the foolhardy still show up in the desperate hope of a different ending.

But it’s not going to happen, is it? Manchester United have become a long-running Korean soap opera. Shuffle the personnel, the sets and the director, but the storylines are always the same. From the absentee owners to forgotten footballers, the Red Devils remain a rabble still believing in redemption, despite all evidence to the contrary.

To save time, here’s the "cut out and keep" biennial storyline for the foreseeable future, unless Sir Jim Ratcliffe shows up with a billion-dollar blowtorch.

New manager shows up. He enjoys a honeymoon bounce, thanks to a rebel unit within the dressing room still revelling in getting the previous manager fired. A sixth-month turnaround in results leads to giddy optimism and more money thrown at the man in the dugout, despite the absence of a sporting director or any kind of coherent transfer policy. New manager spends wildly. The debt builds. Owners skirt the fringes of Financial Fair Play rules to force a sale of a failing heritage site for an obscene profit. Gary Neville blames the Glazers.

But the new manager can only buy also-rans and near misses. Anyone better joins a club with one of those sporting director thingies and a coherent transfer plan or a discernible playing structure (that would be Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Newcastle United, Tottenham and perhaps even Aston Villa now, too.) New manager realises he’s effectively bought short-term mercenaries, just like the previous manager. Gary Neville blames the Glazers. Inspirational leader Bruno Fernandes sulks for a bit.

Cliques form. The mercenaries realise that a) they’re earning ridiculous money that cannot be matched anywhere outside of Saudi Arabia, b) the directionless club exposes a weakened manager and c) there’s a warped balance of power within the dressing room. Gary Neville blames the Glazers. Inspirational leader Bruno Fernandes sulks for a bit.

United are left with either well-paid players they can’t sell (Harry Maguire) or well-paid players content to pick up a pay cheque (Anthony Martial). Performances veer wildly from average to awful. Picking a first XI is like pinning a pinata, a stab in the dark. Owners are elsewhere, touting their wares with less subtlety than a fake Ramly burger seller at a pasar malam. Gary Neville blames the Glazers. Inspirational leader Bruno Fernandes sulks for a bit.

The fans boo wretched 3-0 home defeats by Bournemouth, but the fans don’t count. The docile, mobile ATMs are expected to turn up, no matter what, even with Martial up front, Raphael Varane on the bench and Jonny Evans getting game time at 35.

New manager becomes old manager within 18 months. Old manager becomes beleaguered manager after losing at home to Bournemouth. Inspirational leader Bruno Fernandes realises beleaguered manager may be on his way out and gets in an early apology, just in case.

Inevitably, the climax arrives, the beleaguered manager becomes sacked manager, the Glazers throw half a billion quid at the next new manager, to keep their rusting product in the shop window. Fans rejoice. Players shrug. Repeat all of the above at two-year intervals.

Manchester United captain Bruno Fernandes (right) reacts after losing to AFC Bournemouth at Old Trafford.
Manchester United captain Bruno Fernandes (right) reacts after losing to AFC Bournemouth at Old Trafford. (PHOTO: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Ten Hag slipping into the United doom loop

There is only one ending here. It’s been the only ending since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. The only surprise isn’t the despair, but the stubborn fixation with hope. After the Bournemouth farce, Erik ten Hag surveyed the latest carnage in the Manchester rain. The booing barely registered. There was hardly anyone left inside Old Trafford. Maybe he saw the doom loop for the first time, the futility of pushing a boulder uphill, occasionally making progress against the equally hapless Chelsea, only to slip back even further.

The Dutchman’s only notable contribution at United is to build an enigma, even if there’s no real mystery. Alejandro Garnacho can dance along the left, but he was dreadful against Bournemouth. Dance partners need reliable partners. Fernandes isn’t one of them. Nor is Martial, or Antony, or Marcus Rashford, or Rasmus Hojlund (yet). Scott McTominay took out Chelsea, but was overpowered against Bournemouth. He lacks muscle around him. Luke Shaw remains United’s classiest defender, just a different class to his colleagues.

The few, rare gems either lack polish or are stuck in a quagmire of mediocrity. Ten Hag has slipped into the Glazers’ doom loop, taking last season’s third-placed finish and a couple of cup final appearances and then spending haphazardly to produce a less effective line-up. It’s as you were, United. Spending bigger. Looking smaller.

His exit already feels predetermined. We’ve already seen it, five times in 10 years. It’ll be settled after Bayern Munich and Liverpool. Lose the first and United are out of the Champions League. Lose the second, heavily, and ten Hag is out of time. The Reds and the Red Devils exist to break the other, psychologically. It’s the oldest and most wonderfully dysfunctional relationship in the English Premier League.

Former United managers Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Jose Mourinho didn’t survive their Liverpool humiliations. Ten Hag will be no different. The only question will be when, rather than if, he succumbs to the tractor beam pulling popular, aspirational coaches towards the Glazers’ crumbling Death Star and destroying them.

After seven defeats in 16 league games, United have the only negative goal difference in the top eight, a wobbly goalkeeper, an unsettled defence, a slight midfield, an erratic forward line, a non-goalscoring striker and a manager who has publicly stated that his side are not good enough. But this is ten Hag’s side. His signings. His line-up. His responsibility.

Not only is ten Hag not learning the lessons of United’s recent history, he’s repeating the mistakes far too quickly. Neville may castigate the Glazers for creating the Old Trafford doom loop, but those who remained in the stadium had a different target. Their booing was reserved for the players. And ten Hag.

Quite rightly, United’s supporters have had enough of the perma-crisis infecting a broken football club still masquerading as a proud institution.

Neville may castigate the Glazers for creating the Old Trafford doom loop, but those who remained in the stadium had a different target. Their booing was reserved for the players. And ten Hag.

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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