LONDON STADIUM — David Moyes stopped short of calling managing Manchester United an “impossible job” this week, but his opposite number is starting to make it look like one.
Erik ten Hag’s latest bet is that youth is the answer to revitalising his lacklustre squad, but he must hope they do not always inspire such a turgid game of football – and he may not even last long enough to see his gamble pay out.
It could be argued, though, that the youngsters provided the only signs of life in a United season that is already starting to peter out. They have now lost 13 games in all competitions.
Willy Kambwala, the 19-year-old on full debut after watching last weekend’s 0-0 draw with Liverpool from the bench, and showed few signs of nerves.
His first touch helped United progress from the defensive third into the opposition half as he carried the ball with confidence and even offered a run beyond the last man. Seconds later, his centre-back partner Jonny Evans very nearly lost the ball under pressure before Luke Shaw was outmuscled on the flank.
If you had asked someone who did not know the personnel involved who the debutant in the backline was, they would have struggled to pick Kambwala.
But this is United’s 10th different centre-back partnership of the season already – Raphael Varane’s illness and Victor Lindelof’s surgery leaving Ten Hag desperately short in the middle of defence – and they are clearly still learning each other’s game.
It was only West Ham’s flat-footedness going forward and Onana’s shot-stopping that meant they could not capitalise.
The best chance of the first half did fall to United, the free-running Alejandro Garnacho breaking in down the left channel but his sloppy first touch cost him the chance of a firmly struck shot.
And that is rather the problem with Ten Hag’s investment in youth – they are not expected to supplement a team, they are expected to rescue it.
Garnacho is ambitious and free-running, but raw. Kobbie Mainoo is hard-working and intelligent, but seemed to lose concentration for the first and second West Ham goals.
Kambwala looked a safer pair of hands than Evans, his centre-half partner (16 years his senior) but what is he going to learn playing in this United team, alongside an ageing Northern Ireland international who was perhaps fortunate not to be shown a second yellow card in the second half?
Once upon a time, a string of youngsters starting for Man Utd would have been heralding a new generation of United talent. Increasingly it feels like this will be a footnote in their great careers elsewhere. After all, who would want to spend more than a year or two saddled with the millstone that is playing for United these days?
The same could be said of Ten Hag, who had built a reputation as one of Europe’s best coaches in his five years at Ajax, getting to within a minute of a Champions League final and winning three league titles. Since coming to Old Trafford, he has quickly a figure of ridicule, another character assassinated by a flurry of historic lows: their first four-match goalless run since 1992, 20 losses in a calendar year for the first time since 1989, most games lost before Christmas in a season since 1931.
“We have players who can do it. They’ve proved in the past they can do it,” Ten Hag said.
“But we also have to acknowledge the fact that we didn’t do it as a team. We have to take responsibility. Football is about winning games and scoring goals.”
Both managers agreed scoring the first goal was the key to what was a dull affair for the first 70 minutes, and when West Ham got it, they never looked back.
Ten Hag added: “When you are not scoring the first goal, and you have to show character and personality as a team and you have to fight back.”
United did not. As Mohammed Kudus celebrated the Hammers’ second, the 10 outfielders in white stood near the halfway line with hands on hips. No one rallied the team or “took responsibility” for what happened next. It may be Ten Hag himself who ends up doing so.