Man Utd end worst Premier League season – Erik ten Hag now has one shot at redemption

Erik ten Hag, Manager of Manchester United, looks on after the team's victory in the Premier League match between Brighton & Hove Albion and Manchester United at American Express Community Stadium on May 19, 2024 in Brighton, England
A win for Manchester United but in truth the FA Cup will now define their season - Getty Images/Michael Steele

The Brighton fans at the final whistle were to the point.

“Just like Brighton,” they sang to their visitors from Manchester. “Your city is blue.”

It was a dismissal against which it grows ever harder to argue. Unlike the glory days of the Sir Alex Ferguson era, Manchester United’s victory here on the south coast was entirely meaningless in deciding the direction of the championship, or even who will play in Europe next season. The major decisions were being fought over elsewhere. Eighth place, their lowest league position since 1989-90, leaves them requiring an unlikely victory over the new champions in next weekend’s FA Cup final to even make the Europa League. It is not the kind of thing that merits painting the town red.

For Brighton, things are about to change. Roberto De Zerbi was taking charge of his final game at the Amex. Warmly serenaded from the stands by fans grateful for what he has delivered in his two years on the touchline, his reasons for going were clear in his speech delivered from the pitch at the end of the game.

“I’m sad [to be leaving], but I know what I would like to do in my life,” he said. And clearly what he would like to do with his life does not include managing Brighton any longer.

Brighton & Hove Albion manager Roberto De Zerbi acknowledges fans during a lap of appreciation after their last game of the season and his final game as manager of Brighton & Hove Albion
Roberto De Zerbi is departing Brighton - Reuters/David Klein

At the Amex departing managers have rarely derailed the process. Given his track record, you suspect the chairman Tony Bloom and his team of stats crunchers will have already identified the next five Brighton managers. At Manchester United, where nobody could accuse the Glazer regime of smart forward planning, Ten Hag remains in charge. Just. He was given a noisy ovation by the United followers at the end, as they sang of their anticipation of Wembley next Saturday. But how many of them seriously believe he has a chance of derailing City’s march on another double might make up the title of Lee Mack’s quiz show: the 1 per cent club.

This was, though, a marginally more coherent and organised performance from Ten Hag’s side than many this season. Since that woeful 4-0 defeat at Crystal Palace, the United manager has dispensed with his favoured 4-3-3 pattern which has faltered so often, flooding his midfield and employing Bruno Fernandes as a false number nine. It didn’t bring much in the way of excitement here, it required goalline clearances from Casemiro and Lisandro Martinez, but at least it kept De Zerbi’s ever ambitious team largely at bay.

And apart from offering a modicum of defensive cover, the main consequence of the tactic has been the incentive it has given Rasmus Hojlund. Clearly driven by the snub of being dropped, when he arrived from the bench here he offered the kind of vim and vigour entirely absent from United’s lacklustre effort to that point. After Diogo Dalot had opened the scoring, the Dane scored a lovely solo goal, an effort oozing the kind of confidence and determination that might prove very useful at Wembley. Though when asked whether his performance might have been good enough to secure a place in the Cup final starting line up, Ten Hag insisted: “You need not only eleven players, you need a bench as well. Before adding that his selection issues were “not a dilemma - I think it’s a luxury problem.”

Manchester United's Danish striker #11 Rasmus Hojlund celebrates scoring the team's second goal during the English Premier League football match between Brighton and Hove Albion and Manchester United at the American Express Community Stadium in Brighton, southern England on May 19, 2024
Rasmus Hojlund came off the bench to score at the Amex - Getty Images/Glyn Kirk

How much longer he is faced with such luxury problems is likely to become the question of the summer. De Zerbi, even if he insisted his resignation from Brighton was not driven by an offer from another club, announced he was keen to start work again elsewhere as soon as possible. No trying to impose some rationality after years of Glazer neglect, were Sir Jim Ratcliffe inclined to make a change after next week’s final, there will be many suggesting the Italian’s verve, charisma and tactical adventure would make the ideal replacement.

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