Manchester United supporters have grown accustomed to the routine by this point. There have been phases of despair, followed by hope, and then back to despair in the ten years since Sir Alex Ferguson retired.
There was excitement at Old Trafford not long ago, fueled by Erik ten Hag’s first season in command, but this week has been a disaster even by United’s standards. Ten Hag is dealing with a huge injury list, allegations of abuse surrounding winger Antony, and a public feud with forward Jadon Sancho just one month into the new season.
In the backdrop, there is still criticism of the club’s handling of the Mason Greenwood case, as well as uncertainty produced by the ownership situation. The Glazer family revealed its intention to sell about a year ago, but the two leading bidders, British billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliffe and Qatari industrialist Sheikh Jassim, are still unsure whether they will be successful.
On top of that, performances on the field have been disappointing (United have lost two of their first four games), and the team now faces a difficult run of matchups against Brighton & Hove Albion, Bayern Munich, and Burnley.
It’s not yet panic stations, but the last decade has demonstrated that United has the power to unravel very quickly. Just ask Ten Hag’s two most recent predecessors.
In 2017-18, Jose Mourinho’s squad finished second in the Premier League and reached the FA Cup final, but manager was fired in December after a string of poor performances combined with dressing room turmoil. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team finished second and reached the Europa League final in 2020-21, but he was gone by November the following year.
Ten Hag still has the backing of the supporters and the bulk of the players, but Brighton’s visit on Saturday feels significant. Brighton defeated United twice last season, and their 2-1 triumph in August 2022 remains the last away team to win a Premier League game at Old Trafford. Between the two league games was a tense FA Cup semifinal, which United eventually won on penalties after a 0-0 stalemate at Wembley, leaving fans nervous about Roberto de Zerbi’s team.
Ten Hag’s task will be made more harder by the absence of first-choice center-back Raphael Varane, as well as long-term absentees Luke Shaw and Tyrell Malacia. Mason Mount has missed the last two games due to injury, and new signing Sofyan Amrabat was forced to withdraw from Morocco’s team last week due to a back problem.
Antony is also unavailable since he is on leave to investigate abuse charges brought by three women. There are also concerns about Sancho’s future when he chose to confront his boss about the grounds for his dismissal following the loss to Arsenal.
United’s selection issues have gotten so bad that the club was compelled to deny interest in Anwar El Ghazi, a free agent after leaving PSV Eindhoven but best known in England for spells at Aston Villa and Everton.
Ten Hag has earned credit after finishing third and winning the Carabao Cup last season, but disappointing results against Brighton and Bayern would add to the pressure ahead of an unpleasant trip to Turf Moor to face Burnley under the floodlights.
The Dutchman isn’t the kind to complain about his hand, but after 18 months on the job, he must be wondering what he signed up for. The 53-year-old former Ajax coach is facing not only high expectations at one of the world’s largest clubs, but also a decade of poor decisions, exemplified by Eric Bailly’s free move to Besiktas last week.
Bailly, a £30 million defender who joined from Villarreal in 2016, signed a three-year contract in April 2021, but between signing and leaving, the Ivory Coast international made just 13 first-team appearances. It is far from an isolated incident.
Marcos Rojo signed a three-year contract in March 2018, however he only made 17 appearances before leaving, first on loan to Estudiantes and then on a free transfer to Boca Juniors in February 2021. Between signing a new three-year deal in December 2018 and joining AS Roma – originally on loan – in August 2019, Chris Smalling appeared 16 times. Phil Jones appeared in 21 games between signing a four-year contract in February 2019 and departing on free agency in June.
In total, United gave four players 13-year contracts and garnered 67 appearances in exchange. It’s no surprise that financial fair play limits have limited this summer’s transfer budget, but it doesn’t stop there.
According to Ten Hag, Donny van de Beek is not earned a spot in this season’s 25-man Champions League team because he has only played 90 minutes in a Premier League game three times since joining from Ajax for £35 million in 2020. Harry Maguire remains the most expensive defender in the world, having joined United from Leicester City for £80 million in 2019. He is presently the club’s fourth-choice center-back.
Sancho is the club’s fifth-most expensive signing at £73m, but he’s the subject of an offer from Al Ettifaq, and United are willing to entertain the Saudi Pro League side’s request. Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku, and ngel Di Mara are all on the list of United’s ten most expensive signings ever, and all have been utter failures.
The list is endless.
It’s weeks like this that highlight the enormity of Ten Hag’s challenge at Old Trafford. He is attempting to undo years of mismanagement in order to assemble a side capable of competing for the prizes that Ferguson used to win on a regular basis. In the short term, his attention will be on Brighton and achieving a result that will assist the ship stay afloat.
The storm clouds are gathering once more.