Why Erik ten Hag was never going to exile Marcus Rashford like Jadon Sancho

Erik ten Hag and Marcus Rashford during last season's Europa League tie at Real Betis
Marcus Rashford's (left) trip to Belfast is the latest off-field player issue for Erik ten Hag - Getty Images/Fran Santiago

At a game earlier in the season, an executive from a Premier League rival was in conversation with a counterpart at Manchester United and intrigued by the persistent maelstrom surrounding them.

“How do you handle this?” the person asked. “We have all the same issues that you have here – players who have had problems with police, players who have fallen out with the manager and are training with the academy or on their own, internal issues but no one gives a s--- about us.”

There are only a handful of clubs in the world where the spotlight is as intense as it is at United and sadly for manager Erik ten Hag and those who would probably settle for a few weeks without another crisis given the near daily dramas in M16, there are no signs of things calming down.

From Mason Greenwood and Antony to Jadon Sancho and now, once again, Marcus Rashford, United have been unable to escape a quagmire of controversy and negativity.

Indeed, there is only one set of “noisy neighbours” in Manchester these days, and it isn’t the Treble winners down the road.

Ten Hag said he inherited a “no good culture” when he arrived at United but, 21 months on, his quest to restore a level of discipline and respect that has not really existed since Sir Alex Ferguson left the building looks about as convincing as his team’s goal-shy attack.

When Rashford was dropped against Wolves just over a year ago after being a few minutes late for a team meeting, Ten Hag was operating from a position of strength.

He had won his battle with arguably football’s most high profile figure, Cristiano Ronaldo. Results were good. The fans were all on side. A first trophy for six years was just around the corner. United resembled a club rediscovering a sense of order.

Now it is chaos again, on and off the pitch, and Ten Hag – his own future uncertain with Ineos about to take complete control of football operations – is no longer on a strong footing but rather watching the ground constantly giving way from under his feet.

After the Greenwood, Antony and Sancho episodes – none of which, remember, have been resolved, only kicked down the line – Ten Hag could really have done without Rashford challenging his authority for a second time in three months.

Back in late October, Rashford was reprimanded by his manager and told his behaviour was “unacceptable” after going out until the early hours after a 3-0 defeat to Manchester City when he had training later that morning. This time around, Rashford is said to have done similar – only this time he reputedly had two successive nights out in Belfast and then said he was too sick to train the next day.

There are two distinct areas of concern here. Firstly, that Rashford thought he could behave in that way again and get away with it. And, secondly, that a player who has always given the impression of being a good and responsible professional should choose to act that way.

It certainly helps to explain why there are increasing concerns at United about Rashford’s off-field issues and other factors potentially being at play.

None of which particularly helps Ten Hag, of course. If results do not improve, starting at Wolves on Thursday night, there will be no standards for him to enforce at Old Trafford before too long, and even if they do he may face a battle to convince Ineos he is the right manager to lead the club forward.

Ten Hag’s handling of the Sancho situation has certainly left the manager between a rock and a hard place as he attempts to reimpose some authority over Rashford and the rest of the squad. Sancho was banished for going on social media and effectively accusing Ten Hag of lying over the reasons for his absence against Arsenal in September.

Jadon Sancho joins Borussia Dortmund on loan from Manchester United
Jadon Sancho has returned to Borussia Dortmund on loan - Getty Images/Hendrik Deckers

The forward said he had been made a “scapegoat” and privately it is thought the player – now on loan at Borussia Dortmund – felt there had been notable inconsistencies in the way Ten Hag applied certain rules in relation to him compared to team-mates.

Ten Hag’s apparent iron fist certainly appears to have softened where Rashford is now concerned and the messaging feels rather opaque. Would Sancho be in the squad to face Wolves, for example, had he twice committed the sort of indiscretions for which Rashford has now apparently been fined?

Not that exiling another player was ever going to be the answer. Viewed in the context of United’s continuing disciplinary issues, Ten Hag’s stance on Sancho has done little other than drive down the player’s transfer value. And given that Antony, already grotesquely overpriced at £85million, remains the subject of police investigations over allegations he assaulted a former girlfriend, which he denies, the last thing United need is a third forward becoming damaged goods.

What United would give for a brief period under the radar.