Manchester United, Erik ten Hag claimed, remain just that. The Dutchman rebuffed reports he has lost the dressing room – or about half its members, anyway – by insisting he retains his players’ backing, by rationalising that the proof is in the performances.
“Everyone is giving their best, there is unity as a team,” Ten Hag said. “You can’t play such great football as we did lately if there is no unity.” And yet the supporting evidence hinted at the cracks in his argument. Ten Hag sought to reassert his authority and looked for solace in his past. That has given him strength and credibility.
United’s recent travails, both the results and the manner of them, however, can lend themselves to different interpretations. Their manager sought to claim they are headed in the right direction, that his way is the right way.
“Because – see my record,” he said. “Everywhere I was, every season, I got my targets. If we stick together, stick to the plan and the strategy, we will get where we want to be.” After a decade of underachievement, it is certainly not entirely Ten Hag’s fault that those destinations appear far off but there is a gap between a talk of high standards and low-level displays this season. The ambitions are lofty – “we want to win the Premier League and we want to win the Champions League,” said Ten Hag – but the reality very different.
If United were never likely to achieve those aims this season, they face an early exit from the major European competition. They host Chelsea on Wednesday in precisely the sort of game they have lost this year, at a point when the manager’s relationship with his players is under added scrutiny after their lacklustre efforts in defeat to Newcastle, when his case for the United squad still supporting him rests on wins over lesser lights.
“I know they would have dropped me against Fulham or Burnley if it was the other situation,” Ten Hag said. “If the situation was not right, if the environment is not right, and that is not the case.” The manager can project stubbornness and defiance; his side only do sometimes. They were outrun and outworked by a Newcastle team who had every right to feel more fatigued, given the injury list that meant they could not rotate. “When you play one bad performance you can’t tell the culture is no good,” said Ten Hag, and if the £73m signing Jadon Sancho is training with the under-18s as part of the manager’s hardline approach to the culture, United are yet to reap any benefit from the stand-off.
And as for the great football? Ten Hag claimed the overwhelming majority of his players want to play his brand of “proactive, brave, dynamic” football. Yet while United have been prolific in the Champions League, only five teams have scored fewer Premier League goals. Go by expected points and United trail Brentford and Everton by quite some distance. Ten Hag nevertheless looked at displays against Sean Dyche’s team and Galatasaray when, he said, United played well in “almost all aspects”.
And if Andre Onana’s errors may have reshaped the narrative from the trip to Turkey, United have lost 48 per cent of their matches this season; even in the relegation campaign of 1973-74, they only lost 49 per cent. For now, Ten Hag’s targets seem way off. “I demand of my players to win every game,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who the opponent is, and I will stick to that. It brought us last year very far.” This season, however, it does matter who the opponent is. United’s 24 points have all come against the sides now in the lower half of the table.
Perhaps they should not be billed as flat-track bullies, because seven of those victories have come by one-goal margins. But United have played five games against teams currently in the top half and lost all five. They have been beaten by Tottenham, Arsenal, Brighton, Manchester City and Newcastle. An imbalance in the fixture list means four of their next five matches are against the better teams, in Chelsea, Liverpool, West Ham and Aston Villa.
“We are developing, progressing as a team, but we have a lot to go, a lot to build on,” Ten Hag said. The danger, though, is that they are regressing after his encouraging debut campaign. Certainly, the bad news comes more frequently now.
“Negativity is never good. You have to take care it never kills the energy,” Ten Hag argued. United’s new approach – banning some media outlets – offered echoes of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign, but thus far without the results.
Some of the focus comes with the territory. “I know, and all the players know, we are the biggest club in the world, then you know you get a lot of attention,” he said. And if that attention can include everything from claims raw chicken was sold at Old Trafford to a coach journey to Newcastle becoming public, the more damaging elements relate to the football, to the talk of fractured relationships in what could prove a broken campaign. But it may be a test if, in the style of Ferguson, he can use external comments to forge a siege mentality, to unite themselves against the world.
“You know in the moment results are not going your way and you are not performing how you should, there is coming criticism,” Ten Hag said. “You have to deal with that. There is no way you are alone there. We are together in that boat. We know that. So we will deal with it in togetherness.” United, again. At least according to Ten Hag.