“It will turn,” he told his Manchester United players. “One moment in the season it will turn in our favour.” The confidence was striking. If only his team were so sure of themselves.
It is difficult to have much faith in what the Manchester United manager said in the aftermath of another farcical defeat, this time 4-3 to Copenhagen.
Ten Hag argued that too many individual moments and decisions are going against his team but, even if that’s true, it doesn’t feel like the main factor in these miserable results. It is more how vulnerable United always look after those moments go against them. They are a team that plays under a huge weight – of history, of expectation. It clearly feeds into a huge anxiety. They become a team that plays with fear.
The problem with Ten Hag’s claim that “one moment” will turn their season around is that such a moment can be so quickly undone by what follows.
They’ve arguably already had a series of such moments, from Rasmus Hojlund’s goal against Galatasaray to Andre Onana’s penalty save against Copenhagen and Bruno Fernandes’ penalty strike in Parken. They were all squandered. Worse than squandered. Such reprieves were followed by collapses that were all the more exquisite in their haplessness.
United somehow regularly come up with brand new calamities, different from the ones that came before.
It is genuinely remarkable for a club this wealthy and this distinguished that there’s always some new farce around the corner.
In situations like this, the tendency is usually to survey the fixture list and see where you might pick up points.
For United, though, any notionally forgiving game just raises the prospect for more punishment; more criticism.
This match at Parken was their ninth defeat in 17, after all.
Copenhagen are a well-run and smart club that are clearly overperforming but the vast gap in resources means United should have been able to settle before setting themselves on the way to second place in the group.
And that was actually exactly what appeared to be happening, in two separate spells. United were 2-0 up and cruising and then 3-2 up and comfortable.
How it went from those situations to raucous Copenhagen celebrations…
United’s capacity for calamity is now a direct inverse of their old ability to win out of nothing. It’s not quite a sense of inevitability in the same way but there is that constant possibility something can go badly wrong. Copenhagen, as their manager Jacob Neestrup virtually admitted, could smell it. They felt the opportunity.
And, again, Ten Hag can fairly point to so many decisions going against him like that Marcus Rashford red card; like the offside in front of Andre Onana for Copenhagen’s first goal.
But a side as expensively assembled as United should have been able to competently see out the game. But rather than them taking control, chaos once more engulfed United.
There are other reasons for this than just basic psychology. Ten Hag doesn’t have the team playing as he wants. There have been personnel issues, especially with injuries. But what of a relatively expensive signing like Raphael Varane? How could a player as accomplished as that produce a performance as bad as this? That disastrous late attempt at a pass said so much.
This game perhaps laid bare that Ten Hag hasn’t picking him because he just isn’t good enough. Instead, he slelected the Leicester City central defensive partnership from 2019 to start this crucial Champions League match.
That isn’t intended as a slight on either Jonny Evans or Harry Maguire, it’s more just the starkness of what it states about United’s team building. All of this has already been discussed repeatedly over the past few weeks and there’s only so many times you can say the same things without people becoming desensitised.
As much as players have individual responsibility in all of this, you could forgive each and every one of them wondering what they have got involved with. Likewise Ten Hag, but then he was specifically chosen to turn all of this around; to be transformative.
His team right now only seem to be transforming the semblance of competence into yet another collapse.
So, a fixture as forgiving as Luton Town at home this weekend isn’t so much a chance to get things back on track but an afternoon fraught with risk.
Likewise this Copenhagen match. Likewise a game the entire season could hinge on at Galatasaray later this month.
United’s consistent confusion has at least brought a form of clarity there. They know they need to avoid defeat to Galatasary to stay in the Champions League, and prevent a third group stage elimination in six campaigns. And there is added historical weight attached to this fixture in Istanbul.
“Welcome to hell” was the infamous banner unveiled at their Champions League elimination 30 years ago. United are currently in a strange purgatory.