Erik ten Hag discovers the cold truth of Manchester United’s new era

The positivity at Manchester United lasted six days. Or the positive goal difference, anyway. After beating Luton, United had a plus sign in the appropriate column for the first time since August. Alex Iwobi’s 97th-minute winner for Fulham on Saturday put United back on an even keel in one respect, though definitely not others.

The upbeat feel generated by Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s investment and his crowd-pleasing statements of ambition was replaced by an early reminder that this team look capable of losing any game, albeit also of winning some. With 15 defeats in all competitions, eight of them at Old Trafford, a club Ratcliffe described as one of the six biggest in Europe instead sit sixth in England.

They have a negative goal difference at Old Trafford, both in the Premier League and in all competitions. Ratcliffe said it was unreasonable to think United would play as good football as Manchester City straight away. On Saturday, they were decidedly inferior to Fulham.

Erik ten Hag’s naturally stern expression can mean he often looks grim-faced. As the camera zoomed in on the Dutchman on Saturday, there seemed an uncharacteristic vulnerability, a worried look. No wonder. The Dutchman has benefited from the wholehearted support of chief executive Richard Arnold and football director John Murtough, ensuring his position went unchallenged when autumn results could have provided the grounds for the sack. Then a period in limbo brought him a form of stability, with no change likely as long as Ratcliffe’s investment was planned but not completed.

But now results have acquired a new imperative for Ten Hag. He has lost his shield: Arnold is gone and it is unclear if Murtough will follow. They were invested in him. A new regime has already made decisive moves to hire new people: Omar Berrada as CEO, potentially Dan Ashworth as sporting director. Meanwhile, and coincidentally or otherwise, some of those Ratcliffe inherited have started to eye pastures new: the coach Eric Ramsey will go to manage Minnesota, the head of women’s football Polly Bancroft to become CEO of Grimsby Town, accepting more senior roles at smaller clubs.

Then there is Ten Hag. Thus far, he has been more effusive about Ratcliffe than the new co-owner has been about the manager others appointed. In the last week, Ten Hag has said he and Ratcliffe are aligned while the Englishman claimed it would be “inappropriate” to discuss the Dutchman’s position. Perhaps he was just being diplomatic but on Wednesday, the billionaire described Ashworth as one of the top sporting directors in the world. He outlined his policy in recruitment. “We need to populate all the key roles with people who are best in class, 10 out of 10s,” he said.

Is Ten Hag 10 out of 10? It was certainly possible to argue as much in 2019, when he took Ajax to the brink of the Champions League final. That case could have been made at this time last year, when United lifted the Carabao Cup and had lost just twice in 31 matches.

Alex Iwobi of Fulham celebrates scoring his team's second goal (Getty Images)
Alex Iwobi of Fulham celebrates scoring his team's second goal (Getty Images)

It is harder to say so now, though Ten Hag insisted results only form part of the equation. “The bigger picture looks very good,” he said. Does it? Ratcliffe has been energised by the impact of United’s youngsters, highlighting the photo of Alejandro Garnacho, Rasmus Hojlund and Kobbie Mainoo sitting on the advertising hoarding against West Ham; it adorned the cover of Saturday’s programme, a sign others may be seeking the new powerbroker’s approval.

Perhaps choosing Omari Forson against Fulham was Ten Hag making the point that he can be trusted to oversee the next generation, though it was an anticlimactic occasion for the teenager. The bigger picture involves United’s almost ever-present injuries this season, with Casemiro added to the casualty list on Sunday, Hojlund and Luke Shaw earlier in the week. Ten Hag had sighed when asked about United’s last 12 months. “You know we had some setbacks,” he said. The loss of key players has been a mitigating factor.

Saturday was United’s 36th game of the season and Ten Hag has picked 34 different lineups. He has only once selected what now seems his strongest side and they excelled for much of the 4-3 win at Wolves, even if the madcap finish reflected United’s inherent lack of control. Yet that strongest side has brought two changes over the season: Mainoo in for the £55m misfit Mason Mount, Garnacho instead of the £85m abomination that is Antony.

Erik ten Hag is under pressure to impress the new ownership at Old Trafford (Getty Images)
Erik ten Hag is under pressure to impress the new ownership at Old Trafford (Getty Images)

The bigger picture includes Ten Hag’s record in the transfer market and style of play: Ratcliffe had talked of “fantastic” football since Christmas, but admitted much of the first half of this season was scarcely exciting. Ten Hag had delivered a positive assessment of many of those games. But then his positivity came with the backing of the decision-makers. Now Erik ten Hag has entered his own era of uncertainty. Decisions will not be made on the basis of one game against Fulham but Saturday was a dreadful start.