Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Peter Hall

OPINION - It’s time for Erik ten Hag to step up and save Manchester United

As Erik ten Hag danced with delight at Wembley in February after helping his new side end their six-year trophy drought, it seemed the grandiose Manchester United of old were back.

The years of toil in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era, the turgid football under Louis van Gaal, the tempestuous Jose Mourinho period and the tactical naivety of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s spell had all been forgotten.

Supporters were adamant a long overdue title tilt was upon us ahead of this season. Instead, this blundering giant of football finds itself in a dizzying spiral to which there is seemingly no escape.

Off the pitch as well as on it, Manchester United are in full-blown crisis, despite what Ten Hag tries to downplay, with the world’s most expensively assembled squad so far behind noisy neighbours Manchester City, in all areas, that the champions are a dot on the horizon.

And slumping to a worst start after 10 games of a season since Ron Atkinson’s United in 1986-87 this term is a mess entirely of the club’s own making.

Ownership of the club remains uncertain almost 12 months after the Glazer family put it on the market. Fan protests take place at every home match, with them desperate to see an end to the Americans’ 18-year stranglehold, one that has saddled United with hundreds of millions of debt. What is raising supporters’ blood pressure most is there are two credible bidders — Manchester-born billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliffe and a Qatari consortium — waiting in the wings.

The cause for the delay, Standard Sport understands, is that two members of the Glazer family — Joel and Avram — hope to stay put in some capacity. The four other siblings want out, ensuring we remain at an impasse.

If Todd Boehly likes to take the more hands-on approach, the Glazers prefer to stay in Florida, with their perceived neglect of the club and its decaying stadium making them public enemy number one. While City have a structure of top-level sporting directors to give Pep Guardiola the perfect platform to dominate, United took far too long to appoint figures in similar roles and have played catch-up since.

(Getty Images)

How those senior figures have dealt with some serious situations this season has only added to the gloom. Mason Greenwood was arrested in January 2022 following allegations of attempted rape and assault, charges that were dropped in February, but it took until August for United to complete an internal investigation and send him on loan to Spanish side Getafe. The fact he remains on the payroll has led to widespread criticism.

Brazilian forward Antony has also just returned after a leave of absence while he faces accusations of assault, which he strenuously denies. Jadon Sancho has been cast aside after Ten Hag criticised the England forward for poor performances in training, something the player publicly refuted. Standard Sport understands Sancho must apologise to rectify things, but that has not been forthcoming and he remains training away from the first team.

Then there is United’s transfer record, with only a handful of the expensive arrivals over the past decade producing the goods.

The squad is bursting with unwanted assets. Harry Maguire could not be offloaded this summer, Anthony Martial keeps getting the chance to show why he was once the world’s most expensive teenager, to no avail, with £40million Donny van de Beek occasionally reminding supporters of his existence.

Ten Hag has players capable of better, even if a title tilt is out of the question again.

Last season seemed to buck the trend of United transfer disasters. Casemiro finally added adequate quality in midfield, Lisandro Martinez formed a centre-back partnership with Raphael Varane that threatened to reach Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic levels, while Christian Eriksen looked like the bargain of the year.

The form of all of the above has fallen off a cliff. Yet, despite a squad not worthy of the price tag and the off-field problems, Ten Hag cannot be absolved from blame. The mental weakness of United means they are there for the taking before they even come onto the pitch — and that psychological fragility falls on the coach. Unable to hold onto leads and with heads dropping too readily after falling behind, how United crumbled after Casemiro’s red card in Tuesday night’s defeat to Galatasaray summed it all up.

The Turkish side’s winner was created by a header from former Tottenham defender Davinson Sanchez that sliced United open like a hot knife through butter. Stars watched the ball sail over their heads, helplessly. That is not down to ability, but something much deeper.

Ten Hag insists United’s woeful form — 10th in the Premier League, nine points behind City, bottom of a very navigable Champions League group — is just a bump in the road, with his long-term project still having the backing of the club. While he should get time after winning that League Cup last season, Ten Hag has players capable of better, even if a title tilt is out of the question again.

Now he must prove he can be the transformative coach he threatened to become last season because, in their current guise, United could not be further from their former grandeur.

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Already a member? Sign in here
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.