Manchester United need Ten Hag to switch off the soap opera before the first adverts
There was nothing positive for Manchester United to take from Anfield, but Erik ten Hag can’t afford to dwell upon it when he needs an immediate reaction.
Amid the ‘Erik seven Hag’ memes already doing the rounds, there will be few consolations that the Manchester United manager can take from the absolute humping afforded to his team by Liverpool on Sunday afternoon. This wasn’t just bad. This was historically bad. This was literally as bad as it had ever been in the entire history of the club. And it came from absolutely out of the blue.
On a player-by-player level, it felt like they had all reverted to the worst imaginable caricatures of themselves, from Bruno Fernandes starting a stream of arguments with himself and anyone within earshot in one of the most un-captain-like performances in the history of the club to Antony ‘playing’ in the loosest sense of the word, when he might have been better described as being ‘more-or-less present on the pitch’.
We can draw the lens back further and further, but the view gets no prettier. This was Manchester United’s worst defeat since Boxing Day 1931, when they were beaten by the same scoreline at Molineux by Wolves. It was their heaviest ever defeat to Liverpool, surpassing the 7-1 defeat inflicted upon Newton Heath in the clubs’ first ever competitive meeting in October 1895.
At every level, it was unexpected. It’s reasonable to say that Manchester United have had spells recently when they weren’t completely fluid. For an hour at Old Trafford against both Leeds United and West Ham United, they coughed and spluttered before finally coming to life. But these spells were nothing like severe-looking enough to feel like foreshocks for this particular result.
And it wasn’t just a matter of form in the build-up to the game, either. Even after 40 minutes had passed, United had shaded the better of the opportunities, with little sign of what was to come. This sudden volte-face level of tumult is pretty much unprecedented at any club in the recent history of the game.
One of the more notable things about Manchester United over the course of the run which got them back to third place in the Premier League had been their assuredness. The swagger was returning, and for it to vanish so quickly, and just as Liverpool were suddenly winding back to their 2021 version, almost felt like an act of illusion, as though Kenny Dalglish had been granted a birthday wish from a genie rather than a cup of Bovril during the half-time break.
The small crumb of consolation United supporters can take from such an absolute shellacking is the hope that it might at the very least inspire a reaction from the players. As such, Real Betis and Southampton may be best advised to don tin helmets for their upcoming fixtures.
This idea that Big Clubs are like some sort of sporting Dr David Banner, who shouldn’t be made angry lest they unleash the power of Odin upon those who follow a defeat, has become increasingly prevalent in the game’s commentary in recent years. But does it stand up to historical testing?
The results are mixed. Arsenal followed their 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford in 2011 with a 1-0 win against Swansea City but did lose their next two away games at Blackburn Rovers and Spurs. But after Manchester United lost 6-1 at home to Manchester City just a few weeks later, they won eight and drew the other one of their next nine games. Indeed, that defeat was their only league defeat between the start of the season and Boxing Day.
And neither of their next couple of matches might be straightforward, either. Betis are in fifth place in La Liga and, just a couple of hours after United shipped their seven against Liverpool, they were holding the Real Madrid team who put five past Liverpool to a goalless draw. Southampton have recently shown signs of life too, with 1-0 wins against Chelsea and Leicester in their last two home games.
With a change in mood around the club so sudden as to have induced whiplash, Ten Hag’s first and most pressing job is to keep the ship stable. Catastrophising this one result will do little good. After all, Liverpool had eight shots on target and scored seven times. Can this magnitude of statistical weirdness even really be accounted for by a manager?
But it would be just as true to say that dismissing this loss with no introspection would be doing few favours to anyone beyond Manchester United’s rivals. There may be deep-seated underlying internal reasons which account for this sudden implosion at this particular time. If there are, then these need to be addressed. If there are explanations beyond ‘every single player had their worst possible day’, then that coming at the start of March leaves Ten Hag with little further wiggle room for error.
But while the finger of blame ultimately falls upon him because that’s part of the job when you’re the manager, the players now find themselves back under the harshest of spotlights too. And yes, they absolutely should be. Not only are they professionals, but they are believed to be among the very best at what they do on the planet, and this is reflected in the vast amounts of money that they earn.
And what Manchester United supporters absolutely don’t need right now is for their players to be tippity-tapping away with lengthy apologies accompanied by sombre-looking black and white pictures on Instagram. They need those players to be spending that time and much more besides putting right what went so extraordinarily and quickly wrong as it did at Anfield. Save the PR work for another time. It would be much better spent giving Bruno Fernandes the sort of dressing-down that he apparently needs.
It goes without saying that Liverpool were excellent. This was the third time that they’ve scored seven goals or more this season, but while the focus after this win has rightly been on the Nunez-Gakpo-Salah axis which so spectacularly found its footing in attack, the longer-term improvement has come defensively, with a defence that had been leaking like a sieve having quite suddenly and resolutely put their shutters up.
Setting aside the Real Madrid schooling, this was their fourth win in five unbeaten Premier League games, all of which had brought clean sheets. They’re nicely building up a head of steam ahead of the closing weeks of a season in which Champions League qualification remains plenty plausible, especially with others dropping points around them.
But just as Liverpool would be ill-advised to treat this one slightly freakish result as anything bar a very helpful step on their road to recovery, so Manchester United’s worst reaction might be to undo all the good work of the last few months in a blaze of anger and recrimination. There is little question that losing 7-0 to Liverpool is as bad a result as anybody associated with the club could imagine. But what comes next is just as important if the club’s recovery from its lost decade is to continue.
Because this result will ultimately be as bad for Manchester United as Manchester United allow it to be.
This is where the manager really earns his money. Erik ten Hag’s biggest success since his arrival at Old Trafford has been to lift that sense of soap opera that had been hanging over the first-team squad, and it’s impossible to believe that he’s gone from being a managerial genius to a managerial dunce in such a short space of time. But his biggest challenge now is to stop it from returning. The result is over and done with and cannot be undone. What matters now is how they recover.
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