Erik ten Hag’s bizarre Fulham row suggests one thing about Manchester United’s future

There are times when Manchester United managers have been embroiled in bitter public rows with rivals. Sir Alex Ferguson against Arsene Wenger, for instance. Or Ferguson versus Rafa Benitez. Or Erik ten Hag and Fulham’s social-media team.

And if the temptation was to suggest that, with a Manchester derby on Sunday, Ten Hag ought to devote more time to Pep Guardiola’s tactics than Fulham’s TikToks, perhaps that is conflating issues. Yet it was Ten Hag’s second spat of the week: accusing Jamie Carragher of being “very subjective” in his views on United may have played to the gallery among the Old Trafford faithful. Yet Carragher was analysing United’s high defensive line, open midfield and habit of allowing opponents plenty of shots. It was a footballing indictment rather than a partisan jibe from Merseyside. He had evidence to support his case.

Fulham’s offence was to post a video of Bruno Fernandes’ reaction to a Sasa Lukic challenge, when he was accused of feigning injury. Their message of “so glad he’s OK” was scarcely incendiary. “Totally out of order,” was Ten Hag’s verdict as he called for an apology. It felt an overreaction, made all the more needless as, until the intervention of the United manager at Nottingham Forest on Wednesday, the Fulham post would have stayed off the radar of many people.

Ten Hag was furious that Fulham had mocked Manchester United on social media (Getty Images)
Ten Hag was furious that Fulham had mocked Manchester United on social media (Getty Images)

Does any of it matter? Each can feel a harmless irrelevance when victory or defeat against City would say rather more. And such comments, misguided as they seem, only attract such attention because of the profile of United. And yet it is worth pondering if Ten Hag would have made them last season, when part of his appeal was that he seemed a serious man who got his priorities right. Ten Hag took on Cristiano Ronaldo, not whoever mans Fulham’s various social-media accounts. He won, too. He made tough calls: about David de Gea and Harry Maguire. His decision-making was not always perfect – Antony was merely expensive and underwhelming then, compared to disastrous now – but he was often correct.

Now a different kind of combativity may be designed to breed a siege mentality. It was an old tactic of Ferguson’s, forever using outsiders to try and draw United closer together. Some of the Scot’s targets were undeserving, though he rarely seemed to worry about that. There was a time when the acronym ABU – Anyone But United – was used more often, perhaps because they were more successful. If, once again, it is ‘us against the world’, now the world is represented by Carragher and someone in Fulham’s press office.

It may be a sign Ten Hag is fighting for his club; alternatively, that he is fighting for his job, given the changing context of Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s investment and an influx of new appointments. Negative perceptions could be particularly damaging for him.

But that, in turn, raises questions about Ten Hag’s own verdict. Too many of the Dutchman’s interpretations of events this season have lacked credibility. “We should have won this game,” he declared after losing to Fulham. That wasn’t the view of many another: “it is clear the better team won,” said Marco Silva and if he was not impartial either, many a neutral concurred. Ten Hag himself described defeat to Fulham as “unacceptable”.

A defence of Fernandes, meanwhile, was in part an attempt to get referees to afford the Portuguese more protection; he claimed opponents are targeting his captain. But it is notable that Ten Hag has been prepared to criticise others of his players this season; there are days when it feels even he has given up on Antony.

Bruno Fernandes was the subject of Fulham’s post but the United captain stood up for Ten Hag in the FA Cup (Getty Images)
Bruno Fernandes was the subject of Fulham’s post but the United captain stood up for Ten Hag in the FA Cup (Getty Images)

That Fernandes is prone to both dissent and histrionics can render him likelier to be mocked. He looked melodramatic in the video Fulham posted. Ten Hag had first branded Fernandes a doubt for Wednesday’s FA Cup tie at Nottingham Forest and then completed the 100 minutes, setting up Casemiro’s late winner.

Which, in turn, is a reason for Ten Hag’s support. In United’s injury-hit squad, Fernandes is the man who seemingly never misses games. Always fit, always trying, he is, even when on a lengthy goal drought, often their greatest chance of making something happen.

His shot had led to Maguire’s 89th-minute equaliser against Fulham. In the away fixture, he has an injury-time winner against Fulham to his name this season. His free kick led to Scott McTominay’s 97th-minute decider against Brentford. He inspired and completed the three-goal comeback against Forest in August.

At a point when Ten Hag needs all the help he can get, Fernandes is his most willing ally. But if that has long been the case, now he has an odd assortment of new enemies.