When news got through to Manchester United officials of Jadon Sancho’s social media post – which, of course, took mere seconds – the feeling was that Erik ten Hag had already said all he was going to say on it. The situation will now be dealt with internally, although a lot is left hanging outside the club.
The Dutch coach made it clear that Sancho had not met the standards required in training. There has been a feeling from some around United that he “had his head turned” from interest elsewhere, although an approach from Chelsea was denied.
Those who know the player are meanwhile fairly wondering why Old Trafford isn’t seeing the Borussia Dortmund version of Sancho, where his attitude was never questioned.
For the moment, it just looks one more waste of an expensive move, to go with how the team United put out on Sunday felt much less than what has been invested in the squad. It’s also one more issue, as if everything is going against them right now.
Ten Hag had already complained how every decision went against them in that same press conference after the 3-1 defeat to Arsenal, before another trend was put to him. That result was Manchester United’s ninth loss in their last 11 games away to teams in the top half of the table, in what has felt a stagnation since the League Cup-winning high under the Dutch coach.
There are admittedly caveats, as Ten Hag pointed out: it looks bad if you “look at the result”. He had earlier claimed the “performance was right”.
There is merit to Ten Hag’s argument and, against an Arsenal team who are further along in where they want to be and are bound to dominate play at home, it could be said he got it tactically right. Amid an injury crisis, United reduced the game to the tightest margins: an almost imperceptibly thin offside; a winning goal deep into stoppage time.
The bigger question is why it is so often this type of performance, and this type of result. That is where the tight margins grow into something bigger. It is why there can be concerns even with the caveats, especially since those caveats did not apply to all of those away games.
United still struggle to impose themselves in these matches. That goes much further and deeper than admittedly missing most of your main defenders and having to persist with the unfulfilled Anthony Martial in attack. They are also a club that knows better than anyone that breaks tend to go your way the more you attack, the more you have the ball around the opposition box.
It must be galling for anyone associated with United to hear Mikel Arteta, rather than their manager, be asked about the spirit behind late match-winning goals.
It is like Ten Hag has a two-tier tactical approach. There is his main Ajax idea, which was maybe best seen at United in the Europa League win over Barcelona and that wider spell last season. United have struggled to recreate it since, which is also a worry.
From these games, though, he clearly goes for something much more pragmatic. United spent so much of this match with bodies amassed around their own box, as they have in many of these away matches. There is now a growing body of evidence that it isn’t working.
The alternative, Ten Hag might argue, is that they open up and get cut apart. That is exactly what happened for Gabriel Jesus’ game-sealing goal. That’s also an issue connected to the lack of balance in midfield.
It’s also likely that Ten Hag takes this cautious approach because he has still only been in the job for one full season and is inevitably nowhere near as far into developing his idea as Arteta. That will more likely bring a tactical deficiency for some time.
Which of course leads to the biggest question: can he get to that level?
This remains the great unknown, even allowing for that Champions League surge with Ajax and last season’s progress.
The fact that last season’s late stagnation has continued into this campaign is a concern. None of United’s football has yet been convincing. It doesn’t feel like the latest signings have made the team that much better.
There may be something deeper there. Those with knowledge of how the team trains say there are some similarities – perhaps inevitable similarities – with Louis van Gaal in how Ten Hag seems to favour players who better understand his system over those with the most quality. Many have also commented on how often he signs or is interested in players he has already worked with.
Antony may have a lot of potential but that’s all it is for the moment. Potential, and for a very expensive price of £82m. Likewise, Rasmus Hojlund, even if it is hasty to comment on him given this was his debut. Sancho, signed along the same line of thinking about the future, may not have much of a future at the club after the latest news.
This starting XI did still have five players Ten Hag signed, one he chose as a captain and a star in Marcus Rashford he fought hard to keep. And yet the overall sense is still of a team that is seeking to execute an idea but only occasionally does so with real conviction.
There is a lightness to the side. There is even an argument they qualified for the Champions League last season partly due to the drop-offs in their usual rivals. Some have started to talk about a “lack of connection” between Ten Hag and some players, and that may be reflected in the Sancho situation. Something has generally not been right since spring.
The flip side is that is exactly what squads start to say in any loss of form. A few good results and it all changes.
That is why none of this is terminal, or a cause for much more deep concern. Ten Hag is still only a year in. He is going through an injury crisis. There have been thrilling performances that show what is possible.
Two key players in and it all might fit again, as happened with Casemiro last season. The attack did look better with Hojlund as a focal point, something they have lacked. Sofyan Amrabat will go right into the team and add the midfield ballast they clearly need.
But they may also need to change their approach to games like this. Otherwise, these trends are unlikely to change.