This is not the first time this season that boos have filled Old Trafford at all times. Not for the first time, there were enough of them to drown the final whistle. But this time, for the first time, a low and loud murmur of dissatisfaction came from a land that was already half empty.
Pockets of empty red seats appeared from around the 70th minute, developing into large spaces by the 80th minute and becoming vast and huge spaces as stoppage time approached. Many fans have seen enough and their exodus indicates that Manchester United’s miserable start to the season has entered a new phase.
If there is a difference between the defeats earlier in the season and the successive 3-0 defeats of the past four days – first to Manchester City, now to an underpowered Newcastle United – it is as well as the scrutiny of the team’s performance. Players, owners, and the manager are now under the microscope as well.
Forget defending the Carabao Cup in a repeat of last season’s Wembley final, the undisputed highlight of Erik ten Hag’s first year in charge. Last night, the United manager simply needed a positive reaction after Sunday’s derby defeat. Instead, United lost two consecutive home games by three goals or more for the first time in the 53-year-old’s career.
There are plenty of mitigating factors in Ten Hag’s favor: a relentless and unforgiving injury crisis, numerous off-field controversies and distractions, and uncertainty over the fundamental issue of club ownership, and specifically the management of the football department itself.
Ten Hag was reluctant to point to any of these obstacles as an excuse. He knows, like everyone else, that he will be judged on results, and that they must be delivered consistently at a club of United’s size, regardless of what’s going on in the background.
United had them briefly, winning three in a row before those defeats, but they never looked like they would get used to it, and never thought a turning point had been reached.
Why is Manchester United, the most successful team in English football, mired in absurdity?
“You only get confidence when you get the right results and that’s only possible when you follow the rules and follow the principles and you’re in the match and in the fight,” Ten Hag said in his round of post-match radio interviews after this defeat. .
However, these rules and principles are becoming more difficult to define. Ten Hag has always been more pragmatic than many would have him believe in his popular image. So far, that has served him well in a club where the curveball is never out of reach.
Perhaps it has been too many things, with United’s play becoming too compromised and now appearing to lack any guidelines. Ten Hag made seven changes against Newcastle, rotating almost everywhere, but in trying to solve old problems, he only created new ones.
Replacing Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes in attack was wise on paper, but Alejandro Garnacho and Anthony have had just as much difficulty in practice. The new, more combative midfield was not as passive or playing at ease as on Sunday, but two-thirds of them received yellow cards within the first 20 minutes.
The defense was mostly unaffected – with Sergio Reguilón coming on for Jonny Evans, with Victor Lindelof back at centre-back – but it played horribly, undressing too easily in all three of Newcastle’s goals.
What about the manager? “It is below the standards everyone expects from Manchester United,” Ten Hag said. “It’s not good enough yet. We have to put it right.
It must be stressed that there is no indication that United are considering Ten Hag’s position, and despite many heading for an early exit, he retains the support of the majority of fans as well. However, a run like this – of eight defeats in 15 matches – raises awkward questions.
Ten Hag was asked in his post-match press conference how important it was for him to give him time to turn things around.
He added: “We are in a bad situation.” “I take responsibility for that. I see it as a challenge. I am a fighter and I am in that fight and I have to make sure that I share the responsibility with my players and that we stay together and fight together.
Clearly, the pressure is mounting. But realistically, what other options do he, his players and United have? Who will replace him? Elite-level managers rarely replace one job with another. Choosing a successor at short notice is often a case of searching for who is available.
Who at United would make such a decision, given that within weeks or months, control of sporting matters at the club could be in completely different hands? Until now, sources close to the INEOS bid, who have remained anonymous because they did not have permission to speak publicly, have always indicated that if there are problems at United, they do not lie in the manager’s office.
Will United be able to afford a new recruit? Remarkably, at a club that reported record revenues of £648 million ($788 million) last week, this may be a relevant question once its dwindling cash reserves, shrinking credit leverage, tight Financial Fair Play margins and compensation charges are taken into account. concerned.
Then there is the strongest argument against a managerial change: that it has not worked the last four times United have tried, and the jury is still out on the fifth.
A club that had long needed a difficult and painful reset showed little appetite for the difficult and painful part, instead continuing to spend big money trying to keep up the pace, only to find itself back at square one.
There is a more than convincing argument that Ten Hag is not the problem. But then the idea that there was only one problem to solve in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era at United – be it the aging of Cristiano Ronaldo, the aging recruitment setup, the leak in the roof at Old Trafford or even the Glazers themselves – was an oversimplification. . throughout.
The problems are many. But recent history has shown that unless a manager can overcome these challenges and build a successful, winning team, rightly or wrongly, he or she is quickly viewed as such.
Erik ten Hag’s turn to pragmatism has come at the expense of Manchester United’s long-term progress
(Top image: Martin Rickitt/PA Images via Getty Images)
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