The performance was wrong. The tactics were, too. The team selection as well. At last, an hour after Galatasaray sealed victory, it felt as though Erik ten Hag got something right. “There are no excuses,” he said. And as he surveyed Manchester United’s start to the season – historically bad, even by the sort of standards they have set in recent years – there aren’t, really. Not injuries, many as there have been, or misfortune, despite Christian Eriksen’s assertion that “[bad luck] is following us around at the moment”.
Not when United are the masters of mistakes, finding ways to plumb new depths as Galatasaray, without a Champions League away win since 2013, triumphed at Old Trafford. Even for a club who have amassed many an unflattering statistic over the last decade, there were historic lows: United have made their worst-ever start to a Champions League group. They have lost six of their first 10 matches of a campaign for the first time since 1986/87, a spell that eventually resulted in Ron Atkinson’s sacking.
And now, for the first time in his reign, there is the question if Ten Hag has entered a similar death spiral. He dismissed it as a blip, not a slump with terminal consequences. “Last season was brilliant, terrific, more than we could expect, but also in this project we knew there would be gaps and we are in a very difficult period,” he said.
But this season has been less than United would expect. Even with Lisandro Martinez injured, they fielded five of Ten Hag’s starters against Galatasaray. Two more came off the bench. Those seven players have a combined cost of over £300m. And if Antony, who accounts for £86m of that, looked Ten Hag’s folly last season, that unwanted tag may have been transferred to Andre Onana, who conceded three goals from four attempts on target and seems to have a marked aversion to saving shots: the supposed upgrade on David de Gea was a conspicuous problem against Galatasaray. If a competent goalkeeper, the watching Peter Schmeichel included, makes himself big in a one-on-one situation, Onana makes himself small.
The broader point is that it is Ten Hag’s team now. There are no excuses. He was given a pass last season when things went wrong – and they sometimes did spectacularly – because of the mess he inherited, but United have regressed, and alarmingly, in the last two months. It is a familiar scenario: Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had a year or two of imperfect progress before, after reshaping teams at considerable cost, it spiralled out of their control.
Ten Hag presented a picture of togetherness. “We come out together, fight together and stick together and that is me, the directors, the team: together we will fight,” he said. That togetherness presumably excludes Jadon Sancho – Ten Hag’s feud with the exiled winger has not benefited the manager, player, or team so far – and a disjointed rabble scarcely looked, well, united. Ten Hag nevertheless noted their urgency. “Every time they have the energy,” he said. But energy without organisation was chaos and Casemiro’s commitment came in the form of recklessness that brought a red card, partly caused by Onana’s poor passing.
Some close to the dressing room believe Ten Hag has already lost it during a slide of staggering scale. The Dutchman may argue the players are playing for him, but few are playing well. Rasmus Hojlund was terrific against Galatasaray but too many pivotal figures – Casemiro, Martinez, Marcus Rashford, Onana – have had troubled seasons. Beyond them, Diogo Dalot was one of several who improved under Ten Hag last season but was bullied by Wilfried Zaha for Galatasaray’s first goal. Ten Hag’s faith in those he has managed in the Netherlands has been illustrated by the choice of Sofyan Amrabat at left-back – albeit when the specialists are injured – but this was a day when United needed the Moroccan in midfield. Instead, they had Hannibal Mejbri, whose selection seemed a sign of the Dutchman’s faith in youth but, as the ball bounced off the young Tunisian in various directions, he looked out of his depth.
Ten Hag had a spell last season when many a decision was justified, when a team could even win despite having Wout Weghorst. Now the errors are not confined to his players. The speed of the revival was surprising but so, too, is the pace of the decline this season. The boos have become a familiar sound, and a manager with a mantra of “no excuses” does not complain about them. But, as he walked off, he looked sodden and solitary in the Manchester rain, his naturally stern expression perhaps giving way to the haunted appearance United managers start to show.
And this in a competition that helped persuade United to appoint him. Had Ten Hag taken Ajax to the 2019 Champions League final – and he was a 96th-minute shot from Lucas Moura away from doing it – then it might have been the single greatest piece of managerial overachievement in the competition in the last decade. But there are times when underachievement feels ingrained at United. Perhaps Ten Hag is right and it is a period, not the beginning of the end. When his employers have backed him to the hilt, he may not be under immediate pressure from the boardroom. But it also means he bears responsibility for this wretched run.