Red Devils manager only now beginning to appreciate the scale of the challenge he has taken on as his squad struggle to grasp basics
Manchester United have been looking at Lisandro Martinez in a defensive midfield role over the last week, with a view to potentially playing the new signing in that role against Liverpool.
Erik ten Hag knows he has to change something within the team, to try and start changing everything else around the club. Even a stuttering Liverpool, however, could ensure it gets worse before it gets better. Maybe much worse.
That is an ominous thought, given how bad it has been. Ten Hag has been left “utterly stunned” by the opening two results. He just didn’t see any of it coming, especially with how promising pre-season had seemed.
The Dutch coach has held a series of meetings with staff and officials about how to get out of this, although some of those have only reflected another rising concern for Ten Hag. That is his accompanying shock at the club structure, amid so much uncertainty about the future of the ownership.
Ten Hag is now beginning to fully understand what some football figures warned him about, as well as just how challenging the Premier League is. He has been struck by how high the quality of bottom-half sides is relative to their equivalents in the Eredivisie. This is very different to Ajax.
Take one of the most contentious stories of the summer. That is the status of a megastar in Cristiano Ronaldo.
While Ten Hag did initially want to make the Portuguese his focal point, he has become increasingly aggravated at the situation. Many within the club now feel it would be better if Ronaldo left.
It points to one of the major reasons pre-season was so different. There was a fresher mood around the camp. Players like Harry Maguire, Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford looked more vibrant, both in play and behaviour.
But Ronaldo’s return has greatly suppressed the mood. It has changed the chemistry. He’s more intimidating for some players than the manager.
Despite that, Sporting Lisbon and Atletico Madrid would be willing to take him on a free. The United hierarchy are currently insistent he stays. Joel Glazer, who virtually every decision at the club has to go through, is especially unwilling to sanction it. He greatly values Ronaldo’s commercial profile.
So, Ten Hag still has to work around that, which is one reason he has wanted another forward. There has only been more frustration there, which points to some of the biggest issues with the structure.
United have been scrambling around for transfer targets, in that way that really exposes a club who do not have a proper plan in place and are mostly reacting to everything. It is like Arsenal 2011, Chelsea 2017 or Barcelona 2020.
Industry figures talk of how they could sign almost anyone and you wouldn’t actually be surprised.
Take some of the names of the past few days, right up to a Jamie Vardy who many at Leicester City consider spent. Danny Welbeck, who has been broached at meetings, is undeniably one of the better options.
Ten Hag has insisted on a striker by September 1, as well as a midfielder and another full-back, while he continues to bring up Frenkie de Jong. He is likely to be disappointed. Many now see De Jong’s signing as impossible.
So, Ten Hag probably won’t get one of the players he saw as essential to accelerating implementation of his ideal.
The first two games have shown why that signing was much more important than people realised. It is why they have been such a shock, and have even gone beyond the awful results they were.
In the most astonishing moment of the season so far, which was Brentford’s almost farcical second goal, four United players failed to execute the fundamental first step of Ten Hag’s entire gameplan. It is why this is so deep a crisis. The players literally can’t do the basics.
As David De Gea went to play a simple pass from a kick-out, he and the three players around him so visibly hesitated, which so obviously energised Brentford and the entire stadium. They could sense the fear. They could sense opportunity. Mathias Jensen winning the ball and scoring became an inevitability.
What might Liverpool do in the same situation? Can Ten Hag really play the same way? Against this opposition?
Ten Hag has a dilemma, which is where it is impossible not to have considerable sympathy for the manager, if also some reservations.
The Dutch coach’s opening two games show a manager that has been ideologically dogmatic on one hand, but making far too many compromises on the other.
He has been insistent on United playing exactly the way he wants, but with fundamental roles filled by senior players who can’t or won’t play that way.
De Gea doesn’t have the ability to play with his feet to that level. Ronaldo doesn’t have the will to press like that, having again argued against it in training. And these are the two bookends of his team, the pillars.
Compare that to Pep Guardiola, when he attempted a similar approach at Manchester City. Joe Hart wasn’t even given a chance. Guardiola just knew he couldn’t do it from training. Sergio Aguero was meanwhile made to change his entire game.
Guardiola was ruthless. The City manager, however, could afford to be ruthless. Can Ten Hag? It does feel like there is an obstacle almost everywhere he turns.
He could drop De Gea, but United don’t currently have a suitable replacement, it would significantly eat into their limited budget to get one, and even then the Spanish goalkeeper is on £350,000 a week (€411,000). That is a lot of money to leave on the bench in a summer when United have been so frugal. Similarly, questions are increasing over whether it is so wise to invest in all of Ten Hag’s specific targets, before they have their recruitment division sorted. There is an inherent risk to, in the words of one source, “filling the team with Eredivisie players”. The leap to the Premier League is huge, and that’s before you get to the more literal quips about Martinez.
It isn’t an exaggeration to say that United’s start, and consequently their entire season, might have been shaped by the very first few seconds of the campaign and that initial starting line-up. Ten Hag played Martinez at centre-half, and Brighton immediately targeted him with a high ball. It instantly set United on the back-foot, creating panic, and doubt. You could argue they haven’t yet recovered.
Hence, Ten Hag has to make the change. It can be argued, given what Liverpool could do to United, that the obvious solution is to just sacrifice the system for this game and go as deep as possible.
The usual counter-argument to that, from a coaching perspective, is that the short-term gain isn’t worth the medium-term cost. When a manager is trying to introduce a new system, a team can never truly comprehend it if they don’t persist with it in the most exacting situations. That’s how you really learn.
There’s another example there from Guardiola. In his underwhelming first season with City, when John Stones was getting pilloried for bad performances as he initially struggled with the extent his manager wanted him to play the ball out, no matter. Guardiola told him to ignore all criticism, all screams from the crowd.
The problem, as Brentford’s second goal showed, is that United are some way off even that. They have so much to master to even get to that point.
It’s a remarkable thing to say of a club of this scale, but that is the consequence of a series of poor coaching appointments. The squad have had no education in modern methods as a group. So, it should seem obvious that United just seek to frustrate Liverpool, especially given Jurgen Klopp’s own poor start to the season. It equally helps they won’t have the suspended Darwin Nunez, so can’t bombard United in the same way.
If United try to continue as is, though, this could get even worse than Brentford. The stadium could get very hostile – if the game even takes place.
All of this comes amid the prospect of more fan protests, and increasing uncertainty over the future of the owners.
Ten Hag has no choice but to ignore that for now. He has to force a change. (© Independent News Service)