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Erik ten Hag’s exit may be near but when will the Manchester United cycle stop? | Erik ten Hag

Erik ten Hag’s exit may be near but when will the Manchester United cycle stop? | Erik ten Hag
Erik ten Hag’s exit may be near but when will the Manchester United cycle stop? | Erik ten Hag

Erik ten Hag arrived at Manchester United promising to inspire flowing, thrilling transition football. And, you have to say, mission accomplished. You only had to watch Crystal Palace pouring forward at speed on Monday night, or Sheffield United bombing up the pitch at Old Trafford a couple of weeks ago, or indeed Coventry City in the recent FA Cup semi-final. Thanks to Ten Hag, United fans are being treated to sumptuous counterattacking fare on a near-weekly basis, even if – unhappily for Ten Hag’s job prospects – most of it these days seems to be getting played by the opposition.

Yes: it’s an even-numbered year, so we’re discussing whether the Manchester United manager should be sacked. And so to David Moyes (2014), Louis van Gaal (2016), José Mourinho (2018), Ole Gunnar Solskjær (a pandemic-delayed 2021) and Ralf Rangnick (2022) can almost certainly be added Ten Hag (2024), another well-credentialled manager who just didn’t have what it takes to manage a massive club like United. Seriously unlucky! How do they keep ending up with these guys?

Ten Hag talks a lot about “following the script”, and if he has read this particular treatment to the end, he will know the moment of reckoning is probably close at hand. And of course there would be a satisfying structural circularity to it: a reign bookended by two stunning 4-0 defeats in London, 30-year-old and 32-year-old Christian Eriksens floundering alike in midfield, a coach as bereft of explanations at the end as he was at the start.

“Individual mistakes; we had a good plan but put it in the bin,” Ten Hag said after the Brentford game in 2022. “Big mistakes; not following the plan or the script,” he said after the Palace defeat in 2024. Sometimes you just have to submit to the pull of the narrative.

So barring a miraculous victory in the FA Cup final against Manchester City or an unlikely reprieve by the new Ineocracy, Ten Hag will probably go at the end of the season. And – you know – fair enough. You simply cannot play this badly, this often, and expect to keep your job. The most defeats in any season since 1977-78. The most goals conceded since 1976-77. A now familiar inability to prevent teams from shooting: indeed, in the time since you started reading this article André Onana has saved another four shots, and flapped at two more.

But more damning even than the statistics are the optics. The general sense of panic and disarray that spreads through the entire team when someone runs at them. The reliable Jonny Evans, reliably perched 10 yards behind the rest of his defence, as if auditioning to be their drummer. The forlorn sight of Casemiro sliding in on Michael Olise on Monday night and missing not just Olise but the memory of Olise: like a man walking into a room and immediately forgetting why he entered it.

Of course, everyone knows why United keep conceding. The front three press high, the defence fail to push up, and so enormous gaps open up in the middle of the pitch that far better midfielders than Sofyan Amrabat would struggle to cover. Beat the first press, and you have 60 yards of clear, beautiful air. The full-backs can overlap. Quick switches and through balls magically open up. The result: crosses, shots, mayhem, fume.

Manchester United’s Casemiro (left) and Diogo Dalot were part of the defence breached four times by Crystal Palace on Monday. Photograph: Zac Goodwin/PA

If some bloke off YouTube can see all this, then let’s assume that a former coach at Bayern Munich, Ajax and PSV Eindhoven – a man once described by Pep Guardiola as the ideal candidate to succeed him at Manchester City – can too. So why hasn’t he fixed it? Personnel is one reason. Lisandro Martínez, a defender signed to be Ten Hag’s general on the pitch, has only played nine league games all season; Luke Shaw 12, Tyrell Malacia none.

That’s three-quarters of Ten Hag’s first-choice backline. In their absence he has been left with more reactive, last-line defenders like Evans, Victor Lindelöf and Harry Maguire, or non-defenders like Amrabat and Casemiro, who lack the capability to play a sophisticated, organised, high-line defence. Could Ten Hag have tried it anyway, even if the personnel didn’t fit? Could he have reconfigured the entire setup, gone back to a low block, abandoned his principles entirely? Could United have helped him out with an emergency signing in January? Perhaps. But we have to recognise that none of these felt like guaranteed solutions at the time.

And then we come to what Mourinho so beautifully expressed as “football heritage”. Ten Hag has probably gone further than any of his predecessors in trying to work out how a United team should play, rather than simply bolting their own ideas on to the existing squad. His stated desire to make United the “best transition team in the world” springs not just from his own principles but from an assessment of what United fans – and importantly, United plc – would demand. A game of back-and-forth, lightning counterattacks, pace and verve in attacking areas, exciting wingers, heroic comebacks, lots of goals, late drama.

And again, you have to say – with less sarcasm – mission accomplished. United have scored eight times in the first 10 minutes, won seven games in the last 10 minutes, conceded 13 times in the 87th minute or later. They’ve failed to close out a winning position 11 times in all competitions. Their games this season have averaged 3.4 goals. This may not be the optimum outcome for United the team. But it is a clear win for United the global entertainment product.

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Meanwhile players like Alejandro Garnacho and Kobbie Mainoo have blossomed into indispensable talents, Rasmus Højlund has found his feet in a tough league, Diogo Dalot has improved, Willy Kambwala has impressed. Bruno Fernandes has come through for them again. Onana, Amrabat, Marcus Rashford and Mason Mount have struggled, but are not so bad as to be utterly irredeemable. The point is this: for all the horrors of the last 12 months, United have won a trophy and reached two finals, and are probably a functioning defence, a firing Jadon Sancho and a few other incremental improvements away from being quite good.

But of course this is not what moves the dial at a club like United. Recently there have been multiple stories about how everyone at the club is theoretically up for sale, about how the new regime of Dave Brailsford and Jim Ratcliffe wants to clear the decks, starting but not ending with Ten Hag.

This stuff feels good and cathartic. Purgation, bloodletting, burning it all down and starting again. Drain the swamp. Flush the bowl. By a happy coincidence, this is also the approach that drives the most content, incites the most transfer gossip and late-night panel discussion, feeds the most performative online chatter, shines the flashlight of attention most gloriously and most lucratively upon the hallowed name of Manchester United Football Club.

So the cycle starts again. Thomas Tuchel, Gareth Southgate, Graham Potter. A tranche of new signings. New dawns and new hope. Give the new manager time. Give the new players a chance to settle. Late goals, heroic wins. Rashford is back. But is the football really an improvement? Are United going backwards? Drubbings, humiliations, cup exits. Players unhappy with training, reports unnamed dressing room source. Mark Goldbridge is trending. Official club statement. New manager search begins. Welcome to Manchester United, where the transition never ends.

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