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Erik ten Hag’s Ming the Merciless act has given United only flashes of glory | Erik ten Hag

Erik ten Hag’s Ming the Merciless act has given United only flashes of glory | Erik ten Hag
Erik ten Hag’s Ming the Merciless act has given United only flashes of glory | Erik ten Hag

And so the real business begins. The four months since Sir Jim Ratcliffe and Ineos bought a little over a quarter of Manchester United have been the phoney war. No transfers could be done, so little could be changed on the pitch. The task of Ratcliffe and his advisers was to watch and learn and rejig the executive tier so that when the window opens they are ready to act.

That rejig has been more dramatic than many anticipated. The chief executive, Richard Arnold, and the football director, John Murtough, are just the highest profile departures. Omar Berrada will come in as chief executive from Manchester City when his notice period expires on 13 July while Murtough has effectively been replaced by Jason Wilcox, the new technical director, and Dan Ashworth, who will come in once the terms of his severance from Newcastle have been agreed.

Other changes were announced on Tuesday in what feels like a general process of Ineos-ification, suggesting Ratcliffe may have a far bigger hand in the business side of United’s operations than had been anticipated.

The biggest decision for the new regime is over Erik ten Hag. Although he is widely regarded as a dead man walking, the suggestion this week was that Ineos feel he has been let down by the broader management.

Ten Hag might also be about to pull off one of the most absurd FA Cup triumphs in history. He is not wrong when he talks about United being one of the most entertaining sides in the country, but even those who buy into the fallacy that football is a branch of showbusiness tend not to advocate throwing away comfortable leads against the likes of Newport and Coventry before winning through.

The 4-3 quarter-final victory over Liverpool stands out even in a season when United and Chelsea have been mixing brilliance and haplessness to unprecedented levels.

Bruno Fernandes ended up playing at centre-back, Antony at left-back. Liverpool, masters of chaos, should have been out of sight but found themselves out-chaosed, apparently befuddled by how often they were granted four-on-two breaks. Tactical discourse has been seized by the debate between positionism and relationism, but this was a bold step into a more distant future: no-relationism, just 11 players (eventually 10) scattered to create an unrepeatable harmony of discordance.

It would take something unexpected and deeply weird for United to beat Manchester City in the FA Cup final, but this entire run has been unexpected and deeply weird.

But the FA Cup did not save Louis van Gaal in 2016 and it may not save Ten Hag. This is not 1990. Last season Ten Hag seemed just the sort of tough, single-minded figure United needed. He managed to offload Cristiano Ronaldo and made the decision that David de Gea’s inability to play out from the back was unsustainable.

A third-place finish, a League Cup triumph and an FA Cup final seemed a decent base and, if a lot of United’s wins had been edgy affairs nicked by a single goal, that at least appeared something to build on.

Those single-goal victories have remained a feature: 12 of United’s 16 league victories this season have been by one while nine have been secured by goals scored after the 75th minute. Very little has felt convincing. Ten Hag has apparently been broken by the job, transformed in the course of a year from ruthless revolutionary leader to fading general in his labyrinth, unable to direct the anarchy unfolding in front of him, blithely insisting that conceding 20 shots a game isn’t a problem.

It’s as though Ming the Merciless had become a hapless supply teacher trying to pretend that the curtains being set on fire was all part of the plan. “We’re the most enthusiastic class in the school!” Can any manager restore their credibility after the high farce of the past few weeks?

And what then? Once a manager, whether Ten Hag or a newcomer, has been settled on, what in this hotch-potch of a squad is worth salvaging? Reports have suggested United were open to offers for all but Kobbie Mainoo, Alejandro Garnacho and Rasmus Højlund, which given their youth and potential makes sense.

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Fernandes has played more key passes per game than anyone else in the Premier League this season and while his petulance isn’t ideal, particularly not for a captain, that may be less pronounced in a better side. Diogo Dalot has had a quietly effective season on whichever flank he has been asked to occupy.

Bruno Fernandes’s petulance isn’t ideal, particularly not for a captain, but that may be less pronounced in a better side. Photograph: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Beyond that, it’s hard to imagine too much protest if any of the current squad are sold. After a miserable season, even Marcus Rashford now seems expendable. Raphaël Varane and Luke Shaw are let down too often by their bodies. Casemiro looks old. Ten Hag made clear last summer he would be happy to offload Harry Maguire and Scott McTominay.

But perhaps the most damning aspect of Ten Hag’s management is the performance of the players he had a major influence over signing; for those he managed at Ajax or knew from the Eredivisie, he must bear prime responsibility.

André Onana, after a difficult start, has settled to an extent, but his performance against Burnley – a brilliant save and a daft penalty conceded – was emblematic of his season. Lisandro Martínez and Tyrell Malacia have spent much of the campaign injured. Antony occasionally flickers, but he has one Premier League goal this season and is wildly inconsistent and looks a long way from an £86m player.

That, more than anything else, may be what persuades Ineos that Ten Hag is not the man to lead their future. But it’s telling of United’s progress since Sir Alex Ferguson retired that David Moyes was sacked 34 games into the 2013-14 season with United on 57 points, a couple of weeks after a Champions League quarter-final. With 34 games of this season gone, United are on 54 points and they went out of Europe before Christmas.

Modern football’s financial stratification means United have not come close to the collapse they suffered 50 years ago when they were relegated, but this has been a lost decade. And that may not be easy to reverse.

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