After Erik ten Hag’s first season yielded Champions League qualification and the Carabao Cup, plus an FA Cup final, this was the year Manchester United would be title challengers. That was the focus in the Old Trafford boardroom and at Carrington where, in his office overlooking the first-team training pitches, Ten Hag plotted to ensure his second campaign would truly elevate United. Manchester City’s hegemony would be threatened as this smart Dutchman delivered what the congregation has craved since Sir Alex Ferguson departed a decade ago: a team that could take the title race into May.
But, no – not so far anyway, as they have picked up six points from their first four matches with a goal difference of -2. The opening month has left supporters pleading, instead, for a quiet hour or two due to the farce and crisis that have engulfed their club via a series of missteps, sour luck and bad management.
Put to Ten Hag that United’s campaign is already in crisis and the 52-year-old would surely snort. He should, because as an upwardly mobile No 1 his job is to do precisely what is now required: steer United through a seemingly endless fog of issues.
These include Antony, Ten Hag’s £85m winger, being accused of a number of violent acts against three women – all of which he strongly denies. The Brazilian has been granted a leave of absence to deal with the allegations and is unavailable for Brighton’s visit on Saturday. There is also Jadon Sancho, the £74m winger bought three years ago, questioning Ten Hag’s explanation for dropping him for the 3-1 defeat at Arsenal before the international break.
Ten Hag claimed Sancho had not trained well enough to make the trip, prompting the 24-year-old to fire back that he was a “scapegoat”, and that “I will not allow people to say things that are not true”. Sancho is training alone pending disciplinary action after refusing to apologise.
Then there are the injuries that have ruled out Luke Shaw and Tyrell Malacia for the long term and that prompted a loan move for Sergio Reguilón despite the left-back being unable to get a regular game for Tottenham. Shaw’s hamstring problem emerged later on the same Thursday that Brandon Williams, who has played in the position, was loaned to Ipswich.
Joining them in the medical room is Raphaël Varane, who is out for the foreseeable future. Then there is the related, embarrassing case of Harry Maguire. Bought for a world-record £80m four years ago, the 30-year-old was for sale for most of this summer, could not be shifted, then was informed in late August that he was needed – by default, due to Varane’s absence.
Mason Mount has also been missing since August’s 2-0 loss at Spurs (due to an unspecified issue). He may return to face Brighton, as could Lisandro Martínez, Ten Hag’s other regular centre-back, but Sofyan Amrabat, the midfielder loaned from Fiorentina, is out with a short-term back injury.
Factor in Rasmus Højlund, purchased for an initial £64m in early August but who arrived with a back problem that excluded him until his debut as a substitute in the Arsenal defeat, plus Ten Hag’s emerging young playmaker Kobbie Mainoo hurting an ankle in pre-season (he is still recovering), and the manager may wonder if he is cursed.
The other problems that have United listing are self-inflicted. In late August the chief executive, Richard Arnold, delivered the baffling words that accompanied the decision that Mason Greenwood should leave.
This followed the striker being charged by Greater Manchester police with attempted rape, controlling and coercive behaviour and assault in October 2022 after online allegations. The charges were dropped in February when the Crown Prosecution Service stated there was “no longer a realistic prospect of conviction” after key witnesses withdrew their cooperation from the investigation and new evidence had come to light. Greenwood denied all charges.
Arnold decided it was wise to declare that “Mason did not commit the offences in respect of which he was originally charged”: desiring to bill himself as United’s in-house judge and jury is a puzzle, particularly after he oversaw the bungled internal inquiry that took a glacial six months to conclude and featured an apparent U-turn on the decision.
This is joined in the file of foot-shooting by United inviting the convicted paedophile Geoff Konopka to be a special guest at Old Trafford’s first ever Women’s Super League game – March’s meeting with Everton – because he used to be manager of the women’s side. United’s stance is that as Konopka was never a staff member they had no reason to be aware of his criminal status yet when alerted – via a report by the Times – the club stated it would have no “further connection with the individual” and offered “heartfelt sympathy to the victims and all those affected by these abhorrent crimes”. Surely a preemptive check on any guest of honour – former staff or not – is a professional way to operate.
As United’s most powerful executive, Arnold is squarely responsible for this debacle, his words on Greenwood (who was advising him?), the snail-like pace of the investigation into the latter, and the 180-degree change on its decision.
Above him, though, are the Glazers, whose ghost-like 18-year ownership has put Arnold and the rest of the hierarchy in place and is gradually reducing a proud club. The Americans’ sale process of United is now 10 months old, their willingness to actually sell as uncertain as the six siblings are anonymous.
If morale among employees and the club’s image has been damaged (due to the Greenwood affair), a question for Arnold and the rest of his C-suite is how proactive they are going forward. Will a set of protocols be drawn up for the next time a scenario similar to Greenwood occurs? If so, an external, autonomous entity should be hired for the task as a structural failing of the Greenwood inquiry was Arnold not outsourcing this to, say, a respected KC whose findings would be cast as impeccably independent.
The word is United have learned lessons and that Arnold and company believe that, in conjunction with other clubs, the Football Association, Professional Football Association, and the Premier League, a series of blanket conventions should be agreed.
What matters now, for Ten Hag, is Brighton, when he has to avoid a second successive defeat (and third from five games). Do this and depart Munich on Wednesday evening with a draw, at least, from the opening Champions League group game and life will far seem brighter.
But, if results continue south, fans’ ire and the media inquisition will focus far more fiercely on the manager. Last season Ten Hag improved some of his charges – Marcus Rashford, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Martínez and Alejandro Garnacho – but others stagnated or misfired – Sancho, Antony, David de Gea, Maguire, Fred and Scott McTominay.
From a modest sample size the evidence so far this term is Ten Hag’s coaching powers need to be kick-started – quickly. Martínez and Wan-Bissaka have formed part of a shaky rearguard, while Rashford required 327 minutes before his first goal, though Garnacho was unlucky to have what appeared a late winner at Arsenal ruled offside.
If it had stood and United had won, nine points from 12 would have been the count, better than the same stage 12 months ago. That is the past, though. Crucial, now, is the future.