EPL TALK: Ten Hag’s complaining can't hide Manchester United’s mess

Hamstrung by owners, the Red Devils manager continues to find his squad ill-equipped for a strong title challenge

Manchester United's Harry Maguire looks dejected after their English Premier League defeat by Arsenal.
Manchester United's Harry Maguire looks dejected after their English Premier League defeat by Arsenal. (PHOTO: Action Images via Reuters/John Sibley)

THE Arsenal supporters cheered his name. Of course they did. He was the physical embodiment of their stellar progress under Mikel Arteta. His presence, movement and contribution were giddy reminders of these salad days at the Emirates.

His name was Harry Maguire.

And his arrival in the 67th minute, plodding along with all the enthusiasm of a grandparent being asked to kick a ball with a toddler, felt like a plot device in the latest tale of two sides. Arsenal and Manchester United. Vieira and Keane. Pizzas and punch-ups. Once they were warriors. Now they are peaky blinders and punchlines, one a happy gang on the rise, the other providing a laugh track for rivals.

The Gunners really did cheer Maguire’s entrance. And the Red Devils really did finish the game with Maguire and Jonny Evans as their defensive pairing, not so much Lennon and McCartney as an ageing tribute act singing, “When I’m Sixty-Four.”

The duo have a combined age of 65, so even that cheap reference to a Beatles song doesn’t work. And nor did they at the Emirates. Evans went for a wander as Declan Rice smashed in his deflected first goal for Arsenal. Neither defender was present when Gabriel Jesus broke through to make it 3-1. To quote every half-decent impressionist quoting Gary Neville, this is Manchester United.

And what are we supposed to make of the latest incarnation? A cerebral manager with big ideas, shackled to the biggest club hamstrung by owners with the smallest mindset. The Glazers intend to sell, to the highest bidder, at a time of their choosing. Or they may just be dangling the carrot to increase their asset’s value, hawking the club around like a fake jersey at a pasar malam. In other words, nothing has really changed.

We’re all performing the Emperor’s New Clothes again, pretending everything looks different, with new characters and storylines, but it’s the same narrative. The Red Devils are wading through the molasses of their owners’ greed, attempting to forge ahead despite the obvious lack of direction from the men upstairs.

But for the sake of variety, let's pretend and give an updated take on Marlon Brando’s "coulda been a contender" speech, the one where United could’ve been on top if not for this, that and the other. According to an angry ten Hag – and he’s going from deep-thinking ten Hag to angry ten Hag very quickly, which is never a good sign – Manchester United had more dark forces working against them than a Trump conspiracy theorist.

Let’s run through the list. Kai Havertz deserved a booking for his dodgy dive in the box? Probably. Rasmus Højlund warranted a penalty following a tussle with Gabriel Magalhães? Dubious. VAR made the wrong call in denying Alejandro Garnacho a possible winner? Almost certainly. VAR will remain a boil on the game’s backside as long as data geeks run the asylum.

And that’s about it. There’s always going to be a straw to clutch, an official to castigate, a conspiracy theory to grasp at, anything to throw up a façade as flimsy as those that cover sets on a movie studio’s backlot. Take a peek behind. There’s nothing much to see, beyond the unseen headless chickens dashing around in search of leadership.

Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag at the touchline during their English Premier League match against Arsenal.
Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag at the touchline during their English Premier League match against Arsenal. (PHOTO: Action Images via Reuters/John Sibley)

Listlessness engulfs Old Trafford even after summer transfers

United signed goalkeeper Andre Onana to enable a faster pressing game, but existing personnel didn’t particularly press any faster, or with any greater incision. Ten Hag was furious when an Aaron Wan-Bissaka mistake saw an attack collapse. Ten Hag was furious when Anthony Martial shot straight at Aaron Ramsdale, which served only to remind viewers that Martial was actually playing. And ten Hag was furious with Antony. A lot.

Ten Hag’s gameplan relies heavily on his wide men, obviously, and yet Antony’s one-dimensional game – he’s mostly one-paced, one-footed and typically offers one frivolous dribble after another – does little damage to the opposition. He caused considerable distress to his manager though. Ten Hag savaged his man from the touchline.

The winger has always been a fragile commodity. Success or failure is immediate and definitive. The marker is either beaten or he isn’t. Judgment can be swift, merciless and occasionally unfair, but Antony’s inconsistency remains an obvious flaw in ten Hag’s plan.

But what else can the Dutchman realistically do? For months, United’s manager has watched helplessly as his employers behaved like irritating teenagers in a Netflix rom-com, fluttering their eyelashes and flashing a bit of leg in the hope that a global audience would be captivated. Will they stay together? Will they split up?

Or will they allow a rudderless club to drift through another transfer window that started brightly – with the practical acquisitions of Onana, Mason Mount and Rasmus Hojlund – and ended with a weakened squad and an injury crisis, which wasn’t their fault. Yet there’s a sense that they are a centre-back, a left-back, a defensive midfielder and an experienced striker away from closing the gap on Arsenal - never mind their noisy neighbours – which almost certainly is their fault.

Sofyan Amrabat should provide ballast in front of that brittle back four, but he was signed on loan from Fiorentina, when there was an option to sign him permanently in July. But the clubs failed to agree on a fee. Something similar happened with Maguire and West Ham.

Tottenham’s Sergio Reguilon did complete a loan deal, joining United after a move for Chelsea’s Marc Cucurella reportedly broke down, but another wobbly transfer campaign encapsulated the club’s scattergun approach with the owners’ focus elsewhere.

Last night, Gary Neville spoke of the toxicity that engulfs the club as the Glazers allow their cash cow to meander around the paddock, listlessly and mostly harmlessly, happy to wait until they feel their asset is suitably fattened to make a killing.

In the meantime, ten Hag will resort to cliché to hide the mess, stressing the fine margins, the offside calls and dodgy decisions that separated Arsenal from Manchester United. But one side had Declan Rice and the other didn’t. One brings on Gabriel Jesus to score a decisive third goal, the other brings on Maguire to utter derision. Arsenal have a clear, long-term plan, from the boardroom to the dressing room. United do not.

Ten Hag is understandably angry at decisions that went against his team, but they were not all made on the pitch. His anger should probably be directed towards those he cannot name, those who continue to damage the name of Manchester United.

Ten Hag is understandably angry at decisions that went against his team, but they were not all made on the pitch.

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 28 books.

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