Manchester United have become toxic – they can no longer trade on their name alone

Erik ten Hag looks distraught during the defeat by Crystal Palace
Erik ten Hag had an excellent reputation when he arrived from Ajax, but he has been consumed by the vortex at Old Trafford - Alamy Stock Photo/Mark Pain

It is not even two years since Casemiro, at his zenith perhaps the finest defensive midfielder in the world, delivered a masterclass to suffocate Liverpool and win his fifth Champions League title with Real Madrid. Today, consumed by the vortex at Manchester United, he has morphed into a faintly pitiful figure, with his casual loss of possession en route to Crystal Palace’s fourth goal this week suggestive of a player stripped of any heart or fight.

An isolated case? Far from it. Just 11 months ago, Andre Onana was the toast of Inter Milan for his role in steering them to a sixth European Cup final in their history. Now he, too, looks worn down by the insidious United malaise, a once-confident goalkeeper beaten twice at his near post during the Selhurst Park capitulation. No matter where their recruits originate, this club finds a way of making them worse. Look no further than Erik ten Hag, the man feted in 2022 as a decisive leader, a three-time Dutch champion no less, who surveys the United wreckage with mounting impotence, seemingly desperate for Sir Jim Ratcliffe to put him out of his misery.

All the while, you hear the same incantation from their stars of yesteryear. “This is Manchester United,” laments Gary Neville, with comic frequency. He and his fellow members of the Class of ’92 are indignant, understandably, at how far standards have fallen. “The final nail in the coffin,” says Paul Scholes of the display against Palace. Even Michael Owen, not one of life’s natural polemicists, is demanding that Ten Hag be sacked and replaced with Steve McClaren, his former mentor in Sir Alex Ferguson’s day. So often is the Ferguson era invoked, you start to wonder if these ex-players are living, much like the club whose decline they mourn, in the past.

This is not the shrewd organisation that paid £1.2 million to prise Eric Cantona from Leeds. It is a place that commits to paying a washed-up Casemiro £350,000 per week until he turns 34, while spending £85 million on Antony, whose most memorable contribution this season has been to mock the Coventry City squad who together cost less than his transfer fee. This is also not the club that turned Old Trafford into the “Theatre of Dreams”. Their facilities have become symbolic of a deeper decrepitude, with the stadium serving corporate guests raw chicken and the training ground in such a state that Ratcliffe sent an email to all staff expressing his disgust.

Quite the prospectus, all told, for United to send out to the world. Ratcliffe has spoken of populating every key role at the club with figures who are “best in class, 10 out of 10s”. But the grand corporate statements do not marry up with the brutal realities of United’s predicament. On what grounds can they expect to entice Thomas Tuchel, the favourite to succeed Ten Hag this summer? Tuchel is a Champions League winner who could yet repeat the feat in his truncated reign at Bayern Munich. United are struggling, as it stands, to offer him European football of any kind next season. Their lowest points haul of the post-Ferguson age was 58 in 2021-22, the season Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign ended. That record could be under threat.

Gary Neville working for Sky Sports
Any new manager at Manchester United will have to deal with brutal character assessments by Gary Neville and other former players now working in media - PA/Bradley Collyer

The leading contenders to take over from Ten Hag – Tuchel, Gareth Southgate, Graham Potter, Roberto de Zerbi, Ruben Amorim – come with enviable pedigree. But all of them could be forgiven for asking whether they are being set up to fail. It is not just that United, having sunk so far, are now plumbing Mariana Trench-like depths, with a club-record 13 league defeats in a single campaign. It is the fact that so many retired players, from Neville and Roy Keane on Sky to Owen and Scholes on Premier League Productions, are using their TV soapboxes to stir the pot and accentuate the decline.

Nothing expressed United’s toil to escape the shadow of past glories quite like Solskjaer’s admission, in 2019, that he was refusing to use Ferguson’s parking space at Carrington. It created an impression that Ferguson, long into retirement, continued to sit as judge and jury on anyone appointed in his wake. It is a similar environment for the players. Every time that they under-perform, they know that they will be subject to brutal character assessments from Keane, who was so outraged by the FA Cup semi-final against Coventry – a game United won – that he said he disliked his own team.

The broadcast commentariat is dominated by United alumni. If it is not Owen calling for Ten Hag’s premature exit, it is Neville arguing that the manager’s press conference conduct makes his heart sink. And if it is not Keane savaging United’s deficiencies in defence, it is Rio Ferdinand piping up on social media that he is watching them from behind the sofa.

All might be justified in their complaints, but the barbs threaten to generate a toxic atmosphere for any would-be manager. Any mistake will be greeted with a grave shake of the head and those deathly words: “This is Manchester United.”

But if the club are to learn anything from their latest gruesome failures, they will realise that this very sentiment is part of the problem. For the bitter truth is that United can no longer trade on their name alone.

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