Maybe Ralf Rangnick was right, after all.
Maybe Manchester United does require soccer’s equivalent of “open-heart surgery” to fix the glut of issues currently afflicting England’s biggest club.
That was the blunt assessment offered in April by Rangnick, United’s interim manager at the time, as he prepared to hand over the coaching reins to Erik ten Hag ahead of this season.
And it’s taken just two painful Premier League games for Ten Hag to understand quite the mess he has joined.
Underperforming and — in certain cases — unmotivated players. An imbalanced, poorly assembled squad. A faltering recruitment team unable to bring in its primary targets. American owners increasingly loathed by the fans.
Ten Hag, meanwhile, is adding to his own problems with some questionable decision-making in his first weeks in English soccer.
“Rubbish” was one of the words the Dutchman used to describe United’s abysmal performance in its 4-0 loss at Brentford on Saturday that marked a new low point in the club’s recent history.
Moments after the final whistle at Brentford Community Stadium, as the joyous home fans celebrated one of their team’s best ever results, Ten Hag was seen standing motionless on the touchline, both arms behind his back, unable to believe what had transpired.
Ten Hag didn’t flinch as a moody-looking Cristiano Ronaldo walked past, or as he was serenaded with chants of “You’re getting sacked in the morning” from Brentford supporters.
Sunday was supposed to be a day off for United’s players but Ten Hag insisted they come in for training, with British broadcaster Sky Sports reporting that the manager wanted to make his players run 13.8 kilometers, matching the difference in total distance the two teams ran during Saturday’s match.
These are still very early days in the Ten Hag era but the problems are mounting, some of them of the Dutchman’s making.
Why, for example, was Christian Eriksen — a midfield playmaker — deployed as a “false nine” in the 2-1 home loss to Brighton on the opening weekend, then as a deep-lying midfielder against Brentford?
Was Lisandro Martinez, a short center back in modern-day terms, the wisest purchase for nearly $58 million considering the renowned physicality of the Premier League? Exposed against Brentford, he didn’t make it out for the second half.
Why is Harry Maguire, clearly lacking in self-confidence on the field, still United’s captain when he shouldn’t really be assured of a starting spot?
Then again, Ten Hag hasn’t been helped by those above him. How has United gone into the new season without a new holding midfielder, a position the team has desperately needed to upgrade for years? United looks likely to miss out on Frenkie de Jong despite a summer-long pursuit of the Barcelona midfielder and still must rely on the underwhelming Fred and Scott McTominay.
Indeed, upgrades are needed all over the team, especially in attack with uncertainty still swirling around Ronaldo, who pushed for a move away during the offseason and — despite his renowned goalscoring prowess — doesn’t have the mobility to suit a typical Ten Hag-managed team.
With Anthony Martial injured, Ronaldo is United’s only out-and-out striker and played the full game against Brentford even though he cannot have been match-sharp. Tellingly, he left the field without even looking at Ten Hag.
Also notable Saturday were some of the banners held up by United supporters at Brentford calling for the departure of the Glazer family, the club’s owners. “Time 2 Go. Glazers Out” read one, and the atmosphere promises to be toxic when United returns to Old Trafford next week for its third match of the season.
That is on Monday against fierce rival Liverpool, which scored nine goals against United across two games last season in humiliatingly one-sided meetings. The previous season, a protest against the Glazer family forced the unprecedented postponement of the Premier League game against Liverpool at Old Trafford after the stadium was stormed and thousands more supporters blocked access into the venue as they demanded the Americans — buyers in 2005 in a leveraged takeover — sell the club.
Lose to Liverpool and that would mean United opening the season with three straight defeats. The last Ajax coach to join a Premier League team was Frank De Boer, who lost his first four matches in charge of Crystal Palace and was promptly fired after the team struggled to adapt to his tactics and demands.
The fear is that Ten Hag simply does not have the players to fit his style. Or, like in the case of Martinez, he has the wrong player in a crucial position.
Will United hold its nerve if the losing streak continues? Ten Hag surely deserves some time but the early signs are of a club already in a crisis.