Erik ten Hag says Manchester United is on the way up. The Premier League table tells a different story.
It must be tough for the United manager to come up with fresh explanations for his team’s ever-worsening form. But after Sunday’s 3-0 loss to Manchester City, the pressure is mounting on him to provide a solution and turn United’s season around.
“It hurts a lot,” he said. “Now you have to deal with it. Accept it, how it is, and, in 24 hours, you have to get up and go for the next game.”
That next game is against Newcastle in the League Cup on Wednesday. It is a repeat of last season’s final, which United won as Ten Hag ended the club’s six-year wait for a trophy and delivered silverware in his first year in charge.
Those were happier times for the Dutch coach, who enjoyed an impressive first season, which also included Champions League qualification and a second final - the FA Cup, which United lost against City.
Now Ten Hag, who was hired after leading Ajax to three Dutch league titles, faces a fight to stop United’s campaign from unravelling after a miserable start.
The numbers do not make for good reading.
United has lost five of its 10 league games, which is the most defeats the club has suffered at this stage of a campaign since 1986.
In a season when the Dutchman was supposed to mount a title challenge, his team is already 11 points off the leader, Tottenham, and eight adrift of Champions League qualification.
Erling Haaland’s two goals on Sunday made it 11 in the league for the Norway striker this season, which is the same as the entire United team has managed so far.
Rasmus Hojlund, an $82 million signing in the offseason, is yet to score in the league after seven games. While United fans jeered as the Dane was substituted against City, those boos were in response to Ten Hag’s decision to take him off, rather than any dissatisfaction with the striker.
That is just another problem for the manager, who is having to listen to jeers from his own fans with increasing regularity.
He says he understands the frustration and there is still the sense that he has the fans backing. But he is the latest manager to struggle under the weight of expectation at a club that has been in decline since Alex Ferguson retired in 2013.
Ten Hag is the fifth permanent appointment since then, following in the footsteps of David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
With the exception of Moyes, who was fired after just nine months on the job, all of those managers enjoyed positive spells that gave rise to hope they could restore United to its former glories. And each of them paid the price when things went wrong.
There has been no suggestion that Ten Hag’s position is under threat and reports even claim prospective investor Jim Ratcliffe sees him as a key figure going forward.
Yet plans at United have a habit of changing quickly. Moyes was shown the door less than a year into a six-year contract.
Van Gaal had a season to run on his deal when replaced by Mourinho, who was fired 11 months after signing a two-and-a-half-year extension.
Solskjaer was given three more years in July 2021 but lasted just four more months in the job.
The appointment of Ten Hag was part of a long-term plan for United under the vision of football director John Murtough, who has attempted to improve the club’s recruitment strategy after billions of dollars have been spent on underperforming players.
That plan is being tested as results on the field continue to go in the wrong direction, despite hundreds of millions more being spent.
And with Ratcliffe wanting to take charge of football operations if his bid for a minority stake in the club is successful, it is not known what route he will want to take or how that could impact Ten Hag and Murtough.
Uncertainty surrounding United’s ownership has been just one of the unhelpful distractions Ten Hag has had to contend with since taking over last year, with issues surrounding Cristiano Ronaldo, Mason Greenwood and Jadon Sancho among other concerns.
It has been a harsh introduction to life at one of the most famous football clubs in the world, where drama never feels too far away.
Ten Hag, however, was hired for his ability as a coach. And that is what he will have to rely on if he is to turn his and United’s fortunes around.
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