By Raj Chopra.
As the fans wearing red and white stream out of Old Trafford having been once again beaten by their City rivals, the talk among them is how long do we give Erik Ten Hag.
Faith in the current manager is wearing thin with the Manchester United faithful who have so far seen their team win five and lose five resulting in them occupying eighth position in the current 23-24 Premier League campaign.
The general consensus among United fans is to give the manager more time because he is only part way into his second season and the multitude of underlying issues at the club.
These issues which are now well documented such as the ownership have created what Gary Neville referred to as a toxic and embedded negativity at the club. His points regarding the joined-up thinking at board level are credible. Especially in relation to the signings United are making which all seem to be very short-term with no contingency plan or long-term thinking in sight.
There is a general feeling within the fanbase that the ownership issues are affecting what happens on the pitch, but what I’d like to explore is why we see a trend where managers seemingly start well at United only to fail in exactly the same way as their predecessor. Is there more to it than the known ownership issues?
Why do we not see sustained growth in a manager’s teams? Why are we not seeing United teams continuously improve from one season to the next?
Ten Hag was brought into United from Ajax having guided them to three league titles and winning the KNVB Cup on two occasions. He was successful at Ajax also playing a brand of football that was pleasing to the eye. United identified Ten Hag as the right man for the job because they felt his brand of football aligned with the club’s identity in attacking as well as his commitment to youth.
Ten Hag’s first year in charge superseded all expectations, third place in the league and triumphant in the Carabao Cup were achievements nobody expected. His signings of Martinez and Casemiro were also hugely popular with the fanbase.
However, much like his predecessors, Ten Hag’s fortunes have since taken a huge downturn. Five losses in the league and two losses in the Champions League group matches have had United fans questioning his tactics as well as his man management. This is in stark contrast to what was being said last season.
This same downturn trend was seen with Jose Mourinho who managed United to a second-placed finish 2017-2018 season. But then started the 2018 season with bad results leaving his team eleven points off the top four. He was subsequently sacked in December 2018.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer also followed a similar fate having led his team to two top-three finishes in the Premier League only to be followed by a string of bad results in the 2021-22 season. With United in 7th place, Solskjaer was sacked in November 2021.
It’s fair to say Ten Hag has had a number of disruptions to his programme this season with injuries. A number of them being in the defensive position. But even with these injuries, a club the size of Manchester United is expected to have enough to pull through and get the job done.
Losses this season to Spurs, Arsenal, Brighton, Bayern Munich, Crystal Palace, Galatasaray and Man City have been deserved losses. United have been second-best in all of these matches. The concerning factor is the manner in which United are being beaten both home and away. Unlike last season, the team look frail, disjointed and clueless.
Since Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure from United, we’ve witnessed examples of the new manager bounce which sees players lifted by new ideas and a new face.
The manager himself being new to the establishment is excited by what is one of the biggest clubs in the world. Everything he says he thinks carefully about, everything he does he plays a thousand times in his head all the while knowing if he could change the fortunes at the club he’d be heralded a great at United.
We’ve seen he’ll succeed in getting into the top four and may get to a cup final which sets expectations for the next season. Fans worldwide will speculate in the summer about strengthening and pushing on to challenge for the title.
But after this initial early success with each United manager, we see a huge drop off in form from one season to the next. There is a consistent trend that shows a drop from a top-four league position to languishing in sixth, seventh and eighth.
There may be a number of factors attributing to why managers are failing at this important juncture.
After initial success comes added pressure and the weight and expectation increase. The longer United fail to win a league title, the greater the demand from the fans. The nearer a manager gets to the top spot the greater the pressure there is to cross the finishing line. Is this pressure weighing too heavily on those who have tried tested and failed?
Media coverage and scrutiny are huge at Manchester United. When a new manager walks through the door he will undoubtedly experience nothing like what he has ever previously seen. Every decision and sentence is dissected by the press. He has to be on guard when the team is winning and especially when losing.
Every football fan wants to see the manager of their team provide a demeanour that exudes authority and good judgement. But when the manager and the press fall out of love with each other, is this added pressure pot too much for those in the hot seat at United?
For any manager to succeed, there needs to be a solid foundation and structure around him. One of the key support mechanisms is the transfer policy and execution of transfer targets. Every manager that will have started with United since Sir Alex’s departure will have gone into the club with a Masterplan.
If they are honest with themselves they are likely to have not had any grandeur illusions that they were going to obtain every player they desired. But they will have expected to see a well-run process that offloads unwanted players along with obtaining the majority of their first-choice targets.
Is it the stark realisation from managers on how badly this process runs at United that takes its toll in the latter of their tenure?
The above points made are only some of what may be attributed to managers hugely failing after initial relative success. There are undoubtedly more that can be discussed.
But whatever the reasons are, football is a results game and if Ten Hag and his team continue on this bad run of form then as we’ve seen before the pressure will mount and he will be sacked.
What every United fan should be worried about now is what breaks this cycle.
New manager. New Players. Early Success. Huge Failure. Sack.
Repeat! Repeat! Repeat!