The Premier League table reads like a sackable offence, no matter how United’s manager likes to dress it up
December 26, 2023 9:42 am(Updated 11:28 am)
Manchester United’s incoming knight, Sir Jim Ratcliffe, did not get rich by suffering fools. There is no sentiment in billionaire trades. The balance sheet is all that matters. In Erik Ten Hag’s case, that is the Premier League table and it reads like a sackable offence. This is the team Ten Hag built, peopled by players he bought.
There is no future in losing by three goals at home to Bournemouth, unless you nick the manager, of course. Ten Hag’s Christmas bonus is a home match against another team transformed by the quality of its Spanish coach. Perhaps Ten Hag’s misfortune was not to be born Basque, unlike his Bournemouth counterpart Andoni Iraola or Unai Emery, who has led United’s Boxing Day guests Aston Villa to third in the table, just a point behind leaders Arsenal.
Whilst Ten Hag went shopping for Antony, Mason Mount and Rasmus Hojlund, Emery added Moussa Diaby, Youri Tielemans and Pau Torres to the moribund group managed by Steven Gerrard. Interestingly Stevie G is winless in eight at Al-Ettifaq in the confected championship that is the Saudi Pro League, pleading for more from his players and greater investment by the board. A situation to which Villa fans might readily relate. However, the Gerrard torpor is behind them now. Villa are a team transformed. Only Manchester City have scored more in the league this season.
Maybe Ten Hag will get a break. Boubacar Kamara, who has been central to Villa’s ultra fluid midfield, is suspended and the Premier League’s most offensive centre-back, Torres, who also missed the Sheffield United draw before Christmas, remains doubtful. That said, Villa are a team organised systematically, and are less reliant on individuals no matter the quality of Kamara and Torres.
You would be hard-pressed to define Villa in traditional terms because of the way they shift in and out formation depending on what’s before them. Like chameleons they change with the light. A stout 4-4-2 quickly morphs into 3-2-3-2, and John McGinn into Kevin De Bruyne or any other alpha midfielder you might care to mention.
United fans would walk down Sir Matt Busby Way in City shirts for a team as dynamic, organised and committed as Villa. They are entitled to ask how a giant as dormant as Villa have risen under the influence of one man. More pertinently, so is Ratcliffe.
If only the United players had Ten Hag’s capacity for fantasy. Ten Hag sent a catalogue of commentators toppling like dominos as he went along the broadcast line following yet another defeat at West Ham. All were bowled over by Ten Hag’s belief that United had spent 72 minutes in control of a fixture they lost 2-0.
It was a matter only of scoring first, apparently, then all would have been merry at Christmas. Ten Hag’s upbeat commentary on the portion of the match in which United maintained parity sounded like the testimony of a madman when compared with the reflection of the majority of observers. Perhaps that is what 13 defeats before Santa drops down the chimney does to a coach.
“It’s getting embarrassing,” said United devotee Paul Scholes, and he is a friendly voice. “There is no threat to the team.” According to TNT colleague, Ally McCoist, United “don’t look like they are going to score at all.” Since United have not scored in their last four games and only Sheffield United have notched fewer than United’s 18 in the Premier League, Scholes and McCoist are hardly telling us anything we have not already twigged.
Only Ten Hag seems oblivious to the reality, but then six days earlier he thought United were “head-to-head” with Liverpool. Maybe he was just high on not losing a match in which United were self evidently second best.
Surely United have reached the point where Ten Hag has become as much a problem as the players failing him. The fundamentals that have come to undermine him just as they did his predecessors are of course the principal driver in United’s accelerating decline, but we are now at the point where Ten Hag has lost his voice. All traction is gone.
Ten Hag talks about adhering to the plan, about sticking together. But the players are no longer listening, taking away his power to influence events positively. The evidence is everywhere. United are a team without shape or conviction, a bunch of demotivated, demoralised and ultimately degraded players beyond Ten Hag’s reach.
Ten Hag’s analysis simply adds to his problems, inviting ridicule not sympathy. Alan Shearer on Match of the Day is not the only one scratching his head. “Erik ten Hag says ‘we have to stick to the plan’ but I haven’t got a clue what that plan is. There is something drastically wrong.”
It is no longer a question of right or wrong, of apportioning blame for the recurring mess, but of emergency measures, of writing off a failed regime. Thirteen defeats in all competitions before Christmas is clearly unsustainable. The numbers are too great to be explained away, even if Ratcliffe were mind to listen.