Manchester United’s erratic performances in the English Premier League this season, coupled with unconvincing showings in cup competitions and uncertainty over the club’s ownership, have created a perfect storm for one of the world’s biggest clubs.
The latest period of turbulence has seen manager Erik ten Hag come under intense scrutiny over his team’s lacklustre performances and style of playing.
United’s most recent league outing, a 3-0 loss at Old Trafford to bitter rival Manchester City, compounded the misery; Wednesday’s Carabao Cup exit – another measly 3-0 home defeat, this time against Newcastle United – ensured the mood music at Old Trafford remains unrelentingly grim.
“It is below the standards you expect at Manchester United,” Ten Hag told reporters after Wednesday’s defeat.
“I take responsibility for it. It’s my team and they’re not performing. I share it with my players, but I’m responsible.”
As full-time approached on Wednesday night, chants of “You’re getting sacked in the morning” from the away fans eerily echoed around the stadium, slowly turning the Theatre of Dreams into one of nightmares. The fallout from the squad’s recent form has left everyone asking the same question: what’s going wrong at the club?
In truth, it’s tough to even identify what has gone right at United since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson.
There have been eight managers since the legendary Scot’s retirement, and apart from the sporadic trophy lift, none have inspired the devotion of the fans quite like their famous predecessor, nor have they steered United back to being the perennial title-challenging side of previous decades.
“You just can’t quite get the stability that Ferguson brought, and since then, people have come and gone,” Dutch football expert Michael Statham told CNN Sport.
Ten Hag’s incumbency is just over a year in, and despite a promising first season, the wheels are starting to come off yet again – a pattern that has become all too familiar for previous United managers.
The 53-year-old Dutch coach has had to deal with a plethora of unexpected issues already in his short stint as manager – aside from a litany of injuries – with Mason Greenwood being loaned to Spanish side Getafe following charges of rape and assault, which were denied and subsequently dropped.
Brazilian international Antony has only just come back into the squad after similar allegations of domestic assault, which he also denies.
Away from the pitch, matters are equally complex.
The Glazer family – which took control of the club in 2005 – has saddled United with £613.3 million ($743.6 million) of debt despite announcing record revenue for the 2022/23 season, according to the club’s annual report in 2023.
In November last year, CNN reported that the owners were considering bids for the potential sale of the club amid ongoing frustrations from fans, which in recent years have turned into weekly protests, everpresent “Glazers Out” banners and even pitch invasions.
That announcement drew interest from British billionaire Jim Ratcliffe and Qatari Sheikh Jassim Bin Hamad Al Thani, among others. The former, however, emerged as the frontrunner earlier this month after Sheikh Jassim formally withdrew from the race, with his final bid of £5 billion ($6 billion) falling short of the Glazers’ £6.5 billion valuation, according to reports from The Athletic.
While the Qatari bid was for 100% of United, the INEOS owner’s £1.3 billion ($1.6 billion) offer constitutes a 25% stake, with full control of the club’s football operations, Sky Sports reports. Ratcliffe is now reportedly poised to seize the minority percentage.
Despite what’s happening off the pitch, ten Hag says that the noise isn’t impacting the players.
“I don’t believe the squad is affected. They are not thinking about strategic reviews or structures or whatever,” the United manager said before the Manchester derby on the weekend.
However, former United defender Gary Neville disagrees.
“Have you imagined what is going on inside that whole football department at this moment in time? In and around Erik ten Hag? It is toxic and embedded negativity,” Neville told Sky Sports on Sunday.
“They all think they are going to lose their jobs. That is what is happening, and I honestly believe this toxicity that exists at this football club – and has done for years, by the way – eats alive every manager that comes and every player that comes.”
CNN has contacted Manchester United for comment about Neville’s comments.
Other pundits, notably former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher, have pointed to the seeming inability of Ten Hag – who previously coached Dutch club Ajax – to instill a distinctive playing style at United and the Dutchman’s player recruitment choices as reasons for the team’s mired start to the season.
Johan Cruyff, the most famous exponent of “Total Football,” implemented his philosophy at the Dutch club, and ever since, Ajax and the ethos have been synonymous with one another. To that end, Ten Hag’s football at the four-time European Cup winner mirrored that of his predecessors, but the same can’t be said for his style of play at United.
“We will never play the football we played at Ajax here,” said Ten Hag after the Manchester derby. “I now have other players, that’s not why I came here.”
Since arriving at United, permanent signings made under ten Hag amount to £410.9 million ($499.7 million).
Of those transfers, marquee signings Antony, Rasmus Højlund and Mason Mount have amassed 11 goal contributions (seven goals and four assists) in 51 appearances for the club in all competitions.
According to Sky Sports, their cumulative transfer fees amount to £218 million ($265 million). The figures mean that United has spent £19.8 million for every goal or assist from the attacking trio to date.
“You’re thinking, ‘Why hasn’t Ten Hag got the best out of them?’ We all know how good these United forwards are if you can get the best out of them,” Statham said.
Questions have also been asked about United’s plundering of Eredivisie players, notably Antony, Lisandro Martínez and Tyrell Malacia, who all came from the Dutch top division. However, only the currently injured Martínez has had the impact Ten Hag would have hoped for since joining.
“You can get some very good players from the Dutch Eredivisie. However, when you look at the players that have come over, they’ve had mixed success,” said Statham.
“But the majority has been negative. I didn’t think Antony was ready – he needed to have another season in the Eredivisie.”
Ten Hag’s inability to get the best out of the United forwards has brewed concern over his authority in the dressing room – authority that has already been questioned by the likes of Sancho.
“He’s not done anything like what he did with Ajax. His presence was quite a big thing when he started at United – now it’s not going so well, does he hold the same authority to change things like player tactics?” Statham questioned.
“Losing the dressing room” is a phrase commonly used when a manager looks to be on his way out of a club – more often than not, unwillingly. However, whether it’s ten Hag that lies at the crux of United’s recent problems remains to be seen.
Should Ratcliffe’s offer for the club be successful, United fans will be hoping that their side’s fortunes on the pitch will turn around.
Yet without the stability and strength that clubs like Manchester City and Newcastle have in abundance from top to bottom, being a team imbued with a winning mentality not only seems like a distant memory, but also a fading dream.
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