Manchester United fans are getting used to the routine by now. In the 10 years since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, there have been periods of despair, followed by hope, and then back to despair.
Not so long ago there was optimism around Old Trafford, prompted by Erik ten Hag’s first season in charge, but this week has been a bad one even by United’s standards. Barely a month into the new campaign, Ten Hag is having to deal with a long injury list, accusations of abuse surrounding winger Antony and a public rift with forward Jadon Sancho.
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In the background, there remains criticism of the way the club handled the Mason Greenwood case, plus uncertainty caused by the ownership situation. It’s approaching a year since the Glazer family announced it could sell, but the two main bidders, British billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliffe and Qatari businessman Sheikh Jassim, are still in the dark about whether they will ever be successful.
On top of everything else, performances on the pitch have been underwhelming — United have lost two of their first four games — and up next is a tricky run of fixtures against Brighton & Hove Albion, Bayern Munich and Burnley.
It’s not panic stations just yet, but if nothing else, the past decade has shown that United have the ability to unravel very quickly. Just ask two of Ten Hag’s most recent predecessors.
Jose Mourinho’s team finished second in the Premier League and reached the FA Cup final in 2017-18, but by December he had been sacked after a run of poor results coupled with dressing room unrest. It was a similar story for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, whose squad finished second and reached the Europa League final in 2020-21, but he was gone by the following November.
Crucially for Ten Hag, he still holds the support of the fans and the majority of the players, but already Brighton’s visit on Saturday feels like a big one. Brighton beat United twice last season, and they’re still the last away team to win a Premier League game at Old Trafford after their 2-1 victory in August 2022. In between the two league games was a tight FA Cup semifinal that United eventually won on penalties after a 0-0 draw at Wembley, making for plenty of nerves among fans about the threat posed by Roberto de Zerbi’s side.
To make things more difficult for Ten Hag, he’s likely to be missing first-choice centre-back Raphaël Varane as well as long-term absentees Luke Shaw and Tyrell Malacia. Mason Mount has missed the past two games though injury, and new signing Sofyan Amrabat withdrew from the Morocco squad last week because of a back complaint.
Antony is also unavailable while on a leave of absence in order to address the allegations of abuse made by three women. There are also doubts around Sancho’s future after he chose to go head-to-head with his manager over the reasons he was axed for the defeat to Arsenal.
Selection problems have reached such a point that on Tuesday, United were forced to deny interest in Anwar El Ghazi, a free agent after leaving PSV Eindhoven but best remembered in England for spells at Aston Villa and Everton.
Ten Hag has credit in the bank after finishing third and winning the Carabao Cup last season, but poor results against Brighton and Bayern would increase the pressure ahead of an awkward trip to face Burnley under the floodlights at Turf Moor.
Moreno: Manchester United have to show something vs. Brighton
Alejandro Moreno previews Manchester United’s home matchup vs. Brighton.
The Dutchman isn’t the type to moan about his hand, but as he approaches 18 months in the job, he must sometimes wonder what he’s signed up for. The 53-year-old former Ajax coach is not only battling huge expectations at one of the biggest clubs in the world, but also a decade of bad decisions — perfectly summed up by Eric Bailly’s free transfer to Besiktas last week.
Bailly, a £30m defender when he arrived from Villarreal in 2016, signed a three-year contract in April 2021, but between putting pen to paper and heading for the exit, the Ivory Coast international made just 13 first-team appearances. It’s far from an isolated situation.
Marcos Rojo signed a three-year contract in March 2018, but managed just 17 appearances before leaving, first to Estudiantes on loan and then to Boca Juniors on a free transfer in February 2021. Chris Smalling played 16 times between signing a new three-year contract in December 2018 and joining AS Roma — initially on loan — in August 2019. Phil Jones featured in 21 games between signing a four-year deal in February 2019 and leaving on a free in June.
In total, United handed out 13 years’ worth of contracts to four players and received a return of 67 appearances. It’s little wonder that this summer’s transfer budget was so squeezed by financial fair play constraints, but it doesn’t stop there.
Donny van de Beek, not worth a place in this season’s 25-man Champions League squad according to Ten Hag, has completed 90 minutes in a Premier League game just three times since arriving from Ajax for £35m in 2020. Harry Maguire is still the most expensive defender in the world after United signed him from Leicester City for £80m in 2019 and he’s now the club’s fourth-choice centre-back.
Sancho is the club’s fifth-most-expensive signing at £73m, but little more than two years on from being one of Europe’s brightest young players at Borussia Dortmund, he’s the subject of an offer from Al Ettifaq and United are willing to entertain the Saudi Pro League side’s approach. Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku, Ángel Di María — all on the list of United’s 10 most-expensive signings ever and all unmitigated disasters.
The list goes on and on.
It’s during weeks like this that the size of Ten Hag’s task at Old Trafford becomes apparent. He is trying to unravel years of mismanagement to a point where he can build a squad capable of challenging for the trophies that Ferguson used to win regularly. In the short term, though, his focus will be on Brighton and earning a result that will help steady the ship.
Once again, the storm clouds are gathering.