It was less than a year ago that Manchester United won at West Ham to stretch their record unbeaten league run away from home to 29 games. What a happy, uncomplicated time that must seem for them now, in the wake of a seventh successive away defeat with a cumulative score of 2-21.
This is United’s worst away run since 1936. Was the performance in west London worse than the 5-0 defeat at Crystal Palace in 1972? It’s probably too early to be sure, but Saturday was haplessness at a volume that will resonate through the generations.
Which is not to say things were good last September. United had just lost away to Young Boys. They had not played well at Southampton or Wolves. The ease with which Villarreal had restricted them in the Europa League final was still fresh in the mind. Ole Gunnar Solskjær, though, was good at setting up his team to sit deep and play on the break – at least until Cristiano Ronaldo was signed, depriving the forward line of pace and mobility and so destroying the one viable approach United had, and undermining dressing-room morale while he was at it.
At Brentford on Saturday, United were decked out in Stabilo green, as though somebody had highlighted where all the problems were. There’s not a single element of this side that works. Confidence is shot. Basics have gone. None of the parts fit together.
There are complaints about a lack of signing from the Glazers, but this is a squad that has been expensively assembled; the starting XI cost eight times that of Brentford. The problem is that it has been put together extraordinarily badly, with no long-term vision, and zero understanding of football. The present scramble for new players is entirely typical: every player United are linked with is either well-known (or, more often, notorious: Marko Arnautovic! Adrien Rabiot! Mauro Icardi!) or familiar to Ten Hag from the Eredivisie.
To say that Ten Hag isn’t a match for this squad is both true and pointless: nobody is, nobody could be. Can you play Lisandro Martínez, a 5ft9in centre-back, in the Premier League? It’s always going to be a risk, but it is doable, if he has a dominant partner to win aerial battles and if the side is able to control the match.
If he’s playing alongside an out-of-sorts Harry Maguire and opponents can put in eight crosses before half-time, then it’s a glaring weakness. Can you play Christian Eriksen as the deepest-lying midfielder? Surely he wasn’t signed for that? Again, though, it’s not impossible; with a ferocious snapper to protect him, perhaps he could function as a deep-lying playmaker in the style of Andrea Pirlo. But Fred is no Rino Gattuso.
The opening goal was, obviously, primarily the fault of David de Gea, but the gap Josh Dasilva exploited was left by Fred so there was no cover when Ronaldo was dispossessed. Letting in the shot was bad, but letting the shot happen exposed structural failings.
Can you press with this squad? United managed just seven pressures in the final third all game, 14 fewer than Brentford. Ralf Rangnick last season despaired of the lack of basic tactical understanding in the squad; most, he said, had simply never been drilled in ball-oriented pressing. He spent half an hour working one-on-one with one high-profile player, thought he made a breakthrough, but then watched him produce his worst performance of the season in the following match.
Can you play out from the back with De Gea? De Gea remains, despite Saturday’s howler, an excellent shot-stopper, which is why last season he was named United’s player of the year for the fourth time. But there is a reason he has not played for Spain since October 2020 and why he has apparently fallen behind Brentford’s David Raya in the pecking order. “A goalkeeper,” the Spain manager Luis Enrique said in June, “should start the play and generate the first superiority, they must dominate the aerial play.”
De Gea cannot do that because he is simply not comfortable on the ball. Last season he completed just 71.3% of his passes. By comparison, Ederson completed 88.1% and Alisson 87.1%; while it’s true that’s partly because De Gea was encouraged to play more longer balls, it’s also true that one of the reasons United played more longer balls is De Gea.
The long unbeaten away run ended with the 4-2 defeat at Leicester in which Maguire, forced back early from an ankle injury, couldn’t adjust quickly enough to an underhit pass from De Gea, leading to Youri Tielemans’s equaliser. The goalkeeper’s loss of form at the 2018 World Cup was widely blamed on a loss of confidence provoked by his discomfort at being asked to play behind a high line and pass out from the back, which reached its nadir in the second goal he conceded against Portugal, a soft Ronaldo shot that slithered under his body much as Dasilva’s did on Saturday.
This is a major problem for United: De Gea is one of the few United players who has performed consistently in recent years and yet those struggles with the ball at his feet make it very hard for them to switch to a modern style. It’s not by any means the only reason why the Rangnick interregnum failed, nor is it anything like the only reason why Ten Hag cannot fit this United into his Ajax template, but it is fundamental.
The analogy with Pep Guardiola’s prompt decision to jettison Joe Hart is clear. Perhaps Ten Hag has raised the issue, but the mind boggles at who this United board might come up with as a replacement after thumbing through their ageing directory of high-maintenance bad boys. Kepa Arrizabalaga? Jens Lehmann? Toni Schumacher?
But what happens next? A clearout is desperately needed (even after offloading four senior players this summer) but what’s the point if there’s no idea how to replace them? Half a century ago, United responded to the defeat at Selhurst Park by sacking Frank O’Farrell and George Best. Moving on Ronaldo might be a start, but Ten Hag is even less an author of the chaos than O’Farrell was.
That, perhaps, is the most disconcerting thing for United. This is supposed to be Ten Hag’s honeymoon period, but already he looks in danger of being overwhelmed by just how shambolic the club is. Like Rangnick, he cannot play his football with these players; he perhaps cannot play any football. And they’ve got Liverpool next.