It’s said that Erik ten Hag only realised the full scale of this job after the defeat to Brighton, but he has somehow contrived to make it far bigger.
This was what was especially significant about this game, which is saying something for a match that saw a club of Brentford’s size go 4-0 up against Manchester United after just 35 minutes.
It’s not just a humiliation. It’s not just a bad start. It’s not just adapting to a new system, and the inevitable stumbles that will involve. It’s a crisis. A full-blown crisis.
Just a week into a new season that was supposed to be an optimistic new era, Ten Hag has to figure out problems that go way beyond two bad defeats. He has to pick up the mood of shell-shocked players, whose deflated demeanour was really about much more than this embarrassment.
Figures who know the United squad well talk of a group that at this point has had too much, that is too beaten down. They’ve now suffered so many humiliations in full media glare that they’re a broken squad. One phrase used, straight from the blunt language of dressing rooms, has been that they have a form of “football PTSD” (post-traumatic stress disorder).
That could be seen in David de Gea’s crestfallen reaction, something that would have felt all the worse because he’s been in this situation so many times over the last year. When speaking to the media afterwards, it was as if he was conscious of not just repeating the same old platitudes, before offering a strikingly frank assessment of his own calamitous display. Now, his manager has to find the right words.
The Premier League season’s first major storyline is going to be whether Ten Hag can pick this squad up, but he might have to first do the same for himself. It remains to be seen whether he has the charisma.
That may sound like a cliched thing to say, but that’s because there is a truth to it. His former club Ajax just aren’t the same scale of club as United, something that makes it all the more ironic they have a far superior football structure. That of course points to the real problems at Old Trafford, which is the ownership and so many connected problems finally collapsing in on each other, but it doesn't preclude issues within that.
In the immediate term, Ten Hag has to adapt to a new scale of job, but also the immense leap from the Eredivisie to the Premier League. It is why many senior figures within the “big six” caution against directly appointing from the Dutch league. There have been a lot of notable failures.
It should not be overlooked that Tottenham Hotspur passed on Ten Hag in the summer of 2021 because they didn’t feel he had sufficient charisma.
Where Spurs are now makes it all the more remarkable that United themselves passed on Antonio Conte.
The Italian is so used to jobs of such stature he makes all sorts of demands. Within this game, there were moments where Ten Hag seemed frozen by the severity of the beating. He was standing there with surprising passiveness in one water break, when some of the players were clearly looking to him for more direct guidance.
It was similar in the post-game press conference. Ten Hag seemed a bit shell-shocked, hesitating over answers twice, and sometimes repeating the same phrase in a manner that suggested he just wanted the questions to go away.
One of those phrases was “that’s a conclusion” when various questions were put to him about the team.
Perhaps the most pertinent was whether these players are actually suited to his system. That may seem remarkable given it is now a fairly standard modern approach, but it should not be overlooked that this United squad have had very little grounding in it. Jose Mourinho had them working on a system from 2004. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had them working on a system from the Norwegian league.
It was a part of the job that shocked Ralph Rangnick, whatever his failings. He felt barely anyone in the team had any concept of “ball-oriented pressing”, something that is now common among senior pros.
The effect of it could be seen throughout this game, in how Brentford beat them to almost everything. That was what both managers meant by “hunger”. It was really one side supremely versed in modern pressing and the other not.
Instead, United reminded of Chelsea’s old low-block backline trying to learn a high line under Andre Villas-Boas, or Frank de Boer getting Crystal Palace to play out from the back in a way they just couldn’t.
This isn’t to say that Ten Hag will suffer the same fate as either of those two, but he’s already in a losing battle, literally. The very technical mechanics of this game showed he has so much work to do with this team. So many of them have to get used to new roles, not least the goalkeeper.
If it all starts from there, and De Gea is so nervous playing the ball out, how is it going to end?
There was one moment after the dreadful second goal when De Gea was about to play it out, only to launch it because he couldn’t trust himself to get past the Brentford press.
You can go through the team. So many players have to learn a new role. That would be fine if Ten Hag was in a mid-table side with a bit of insulation, as is arguably the more obvious step-up for an Eredivisie-winning manager. There is more space.
There’s none of that at United. He’s already facing a glare worse than the sun in Saturday’s blinding conditions. He’s already in full crisis.