The timing of Erik ten Hag’s Manager of the Month award was, shall we say, infelicitous. Just 24 hours after he posed with this bauble alongside his players, applying a veneer of unity to the seething dysfunction at Manchester United, a truer picture of the Dutchman’s position emerged. And it could be found as the final whistle sounded on a defeat of historic horror to Bournemouth. This time he stood alone and motionless on the touchline, a diagram of despair, without anyone offering a word of consolation. What excuses can be made, after all, for the inexcusable?
“What stands out is the way we are working,” Ten Hag had said, on receiving his dubious prize. “The way we are developing and progressing.” Well, the 73,000 at Old Trafford could make up their own minds on this front, surveying a team whose trajectory is anything but upward. Under the aegis of Ten Hag, United have just lost at home to Bournemouth for the first time in club history, a just punishment both for the manager’s stubbornness and his players’ lack of commitment. As he stalked back down the tunnel, he faced the bleakest reckoning.
It is a mark of honour among United fans that they tend not to turn on their managers until the decline becomes terminal. With Ten Hag, the mood is tipping perilously close towards mutiny. The boos around the ground after Marcos Senesi headed in Bournemouth’s third were loud, with swathes of red seats left empty by the end. The disgust was understandable. For it is not just that United are capable of such gruesome tactical ineptitude, but that some players barely look bothered. A case in point? Anthony Martial, whose replacement by Rasmus Hojlund was greeted by bitterly ironic cheers.
This is what it has come to at United, where supporters lavish affection on a 20-year-old Dane yet to score in 12 Premier League games. At least Hojlund has the decency to show a modicum of effort, unlike Martial, who against Bournemouth produced zero goals, zero assists and zero dribbles, all while conceding possession 11 times. You could accuse Marcus Rashford of being in a similar funk, with the England winger’s entry to a lost cause after 79 minutes a reflection of how far he has regressed.
At this rate the manager might not last the week
It is Ten Hag, though, who confronts the most immediate danger. Martial might be spared until next month’s transfer window, but at this rate the manager might not even last the week. Quite apart from ominous dates against Bayern Munich and Liverpool, there is the complication of Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s imminent arrival after purchasing a 25 per cent stake. Where the Glazers have been too distracted by the United share price to pay much attention to the team’s pitiful inconsistency, there is no guarantee that Ratcliffe – known for a meticulous approach to his sports investments, fond of trying to beat the system through relentless hard work – will be anything like so forgiving.
In one sense, Ten Hag is emblematic of United’s tailspin since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. This latest ghastly result confirmed the remarkable statistic that they have now lost more games at home, 35, in the last decade than they did during the Scot’s 26 years in charge. For all that there have been moments of optimism, Ten Hag’s very presence at the club suggests a hierarchy stumbling in the dark. Myriad approaches have been tried, from Ferguson’s hand-picked successor in David Moyes to the cold authoritarianism of Louis van Gaal, from the ruthlessness of Jose Mourinho to the “United DNA” of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. And still they are hopelessly floundering. “Moyes says United must improve in a number of areas, including passing, creating chances and defending,” the club infamously tweeted in 2013. Ten years later, has anything changed?
But even without this systemic failure, there is still blame to be shouldered by Ten Hag. It is his fault that United cannot summon a coherent attacking philosophy from one game to the next. And it is his fault that the club cannot shed its newly-acquired reputation as a vortex of talent. United might be fond of banning reporters even for acknowledging as much, but Ten Hag is a man on the precipice.