Until now, the last time Manchester United lost six of their opening 10 games was 1986. Manager Ron Atkinson made it to early November before being dismissed after five years in the job, replaced by Alex Ferguson, then manager of Aberdeen. United felt Atkinson had taken his eye off the ball.
There have been zero suggestions that Erik ten Hag has taken his eye off the ball or that his job is in danger. And that’s exactly how it should be.
United have suffered an atrocious start to this season and the manager must take some blame for that. He’s going through his roughest patch since he joined in June 2022, but while the mood is on the floor among fans, during three hours of standing outside Old Trafford on Tuesday night I didn’t hear a single person suggest that Ten Hag should go.
The Dutchman’s stock has taken a whack in recent weeks, understandably so, but United need to stick by a man who did well in his first term and made a succession of difficult calls over problems that weren’t of his making.
Managing United is difficult. You’re working for owners who are despised by fans and who’ve given no clarity 11 months after announcing a strategic review, though Ten Hag and his team should still be doing better than losing six in 10 and conceding 18 goals. He’s been backed to bring in the players he wants and United have spent a lot. Another six defeats in the next 10 and you’d worry for his job.
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Ten Hag hasn’t made any excuses but he’s not once been able to pick his strongest XI because 16 first-team players have been unavailable with injury or illness so far this season, including his four new signings. Add on Antony due to his leave of absence and Jadon Sancho for disciplinary reasons.
The defence has been hit harder than any area, with the three first-choice left-backs now out and the fourth, Diogo Dalot, playing at right-back because the only other right-back, Aaron Wan Bissaka, is injured. United are stuck with right-footed midfielder Sofyan Amrabat playing at left-back. And it shows.
Missing so many players also makes it very hard to identify with whatever style of football Ten Hag is trying to get going. Against Galatasaray, United looked like a counter-attacking side. Against Palace, it was a team who struggled to break down opponents.
While no team has dominated United this season, this side is hardly impressive and I’m reminded of a quote from Sevilla boss Jose Luis Mendilibar who said: “It’s true that against (Manchester) United, as soon as you put pressure on them, they start to struggle” after Sevilla had drawn at Old Trafford and won 3-0 at home to knock United out of Europe. Again.
United’s inability to finish off teams when they are on top is worrying, as is the mentality when things go against them — such as the panic that appears to set in if they concede a goal.
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And it’s not just the defeats. Right from the first half of the first game of the season at home to Wolves, it was alarming to watch the visitors cut through United’s midfield. Wolves somehow lost. Against Forest, United were 2-0 down inside four alarming minutes but managed to come back and win. Brighton won, doing something no team had managed in a year at Old Trafford. Then Palace and Galatasaray followed.
United do start most games well and performed creditably in lengthy passages during matches against top opponents, including Spurs, Arsenal and Bayern Munich away. There are no trophies for that, though, and United lost all three of those games. However, the team that has beaten all the top sides at home since Ten Hag took charge hasn’t just turned into a mid-table one.
Caveats aside, Ten Hag should not be immune from criticism. I’m as doubtful about some of his expensive Ajax-heavy signings as most, but any knee-jerk urge to dismiss the man who oversaw them would be just that. Ten Hag did a top job at Ajax and, in time and with the right tools, can do the same at United. Manchester City fancied him when they were worried that Pep Guardiola might not sign a new contract.
Ten Hag still has stock because he was a relative success last season in finishing an unlikely third, winning the club’s first trophy in six years and reaching an FA Cup final. United knocked Barcelona out of Europe and the game in Spain was his side’s most convincing performance on the road since he took charge. But there’s been a clear tailing-off since — United simply don’t win away or against decent sides.
That credit and goodwill from fans is still in the bank. When Ten Hag enters Old Trafford he’s applauded by the Stretford End and he responds in a sabre-rattling, fist-pumping manner. Angry online algorithms may suggest otherwise but he’s still got the moderate majority onside. I can pinpoint the games when previous managers lost the majority of the match-going support inside the stadium: Sevilla in 2018 started the slide for Jose Mourinho; Villa and Everton at home sunk Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Ten Hag isn’t there yet, there is no precipice that he’s standing over. He needs a change in fortune, more of his best players back, and wins. He’s got three-quarters of the season to right the wrongs, just as Jose Mourinho did in 2016-17, when United had a run of one league win in eight but went on to win the League Cup and Europa League, securing Champions League football.
Ten Hag needs a similar turnaround. It’s hard to see where it’s coming from right now amid the despondency and doom, but it can happen.
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(Top photo: Michael Regan via Getty Images)