Manchester United remain a complex mystery under Erik ten Hag as Champions League hopes slip out of sight

Mount’s late goal was not enough for Man United (AP)
Mount’s late goal was not enough for Man United (AP)

What is there left to say about Erik ten Hag’s Manchester United? They remain too bad to be totally functional yet too good to be totally dysfunctional.

What better way to illustrate that than a 1-1 draw with Brentford in which they conceded 31 shots, absolutely deserved to lose, and yet somehow managed not to. What’s more, victory laid just minutes away.

United’s place in the upper echelons of mediocrity has been this way since the second match of Ten Hag’s reign, after which he was so apoplectic with his players for their 4-0 defeat here that he replaced a scheduled day off with a challenge to make them run as far as Brentford had done in the game: 13.8 kilometres in the August heat.

No such calamity here. They were not beaten, not outfought, but they were most certainly outplayed. Mason Mount’s first goal for United, in the 96th minute, threatened to win this game only for Kristoffer Ajer to ensure it ended 1-1 with his 99th-minute leveller.

Thomas Frank and Brentford are shrewd enough to know that allowing United the bulk of possession is not the same as handing them the upper hand.

Indeed, that upper hand belonged to Brentford. Time and time again they tried to play it, each time United pulling a rabbit out of the hat that never looked forthcoming. Ivan Toney, Zanka and Bryan Mbeumo all thudded against the woodwork, Toney volleyed home a stunner when just a few inches offside, which VAR spotted. Level it stayed.

Then came Mount’s first great moment in a United shirt — the 80th-minute substitute controlling Casemiro’s path and then firing precisely into the corner. Toney had other ideas than to accept defeat, wriggling through United on the right and crossing for Ajer.

Though the television broadcasters would have you think otherwise, it is not the Big-Six clashes that decides who reaches the Champions League. It is consistency in these sorts of games against these sorts of teams. United let Brentford create chances at will. It would be a stretch to say they earned the point they now head back to Manchester with.

It was easy, watching this, to forget that United’s last action on a football pitch was their miraculous 4-3 quarter-final victory over Liverpool before the international break — one of the greatest FA Cup ties ever played. That day they were thrilling. Here, only galling.

As Champions League hopes slip further out of sight, into frame comes Thursday’s trip to Stamford Bridge.

Perhaps Ten Hag will grant himself a private sigh of relief that his side face Chelsea next, a prospect that offers the Dutchman some healthy perspective. United could be better, but they could also be worse.