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Ten Hag makes his case as Man United’s worst modern manager

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It’s never a good thing for a Manchester United manager to be compared to David Moyes, but Erik ten Hag is now posting more alarming statistics than the man generally regarded as the worst manager of the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era at Old Trafford.

United’s 2-1 defeat at Nottingham Forest on Saturday — United’s 14th loss in all competitions already this season — followed the same rinse-and-repeat pattern of many of their collapses. Concede first, equalise and then throw the game away with amateurish defending. Add in some dismal individual performances and confused tactics and you have the story of Ten Hag’s season so far.

It was chaotic as usual, but chaos doesn’t lend itself to success too often. Rather, it generally leads to failure, and Ten Hag’s second season is beginning to resemble Moyes’ only campaign as United manager, when he was fired just 10 months after replacing Ferguson in May 2013.

The problem for Ten Hag is that his team is now performing worse than Moyes’ was after 20 games of the 2013-14 season.

Moyes’ United were seventh after 20 games, with 34 points from 20 games, having scored 33 goals and conceded 24. Fast forward and now Ten Hag’s United are also in seventh, with just 31 points from 20 games. With 22 goals scored and 27 conceded, Ten Hag’s team is scoring fewer and conceding more than the side that cost Moyes his job.

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Moyes was never convincing when he attempted to explain poor results and performances, and Ten Hag is falling into a similar trap.

“Every time you have to swap [players], the routines are not there and top football is going quick, so you need the communication in the split moment,” Ten Hag said when asked why his team makes recurring mistakes. “We went for the win and there was one counterattack where we probably did not defend too good as a team, but what I saw in the second half was a team going for a win and that was what we missed in the first half. I saw some decent football in the second half.”

Ten Hag has new bosses since INEOS chairman Sir Jim Ratcliffe acquired a 25% stake in the club, and INEOS director of sport Dave Brailsford was watching on Saturday from the directors’ box alongside Ferguson, the legendary former manager of Man United. Although Ten Hag insists INEOS is keen to work with him, the sound of the clock ticking on Ten Hag’s reign became louder every time the camera shot switched from Brailsford to a forlorn-looking Ten Hag on the touchline.

It was a similar story with Moyes before his sacking. Back then, the camera shot would be of a frustrated Ferguson before cutting directly to the struggling manager, looking more and more haunted with every defeat.

One can only imagine what Ferguson was whispering into Brailsford’s ear during this defeat at Forest, although it is a safe bet to assume that he wouldn’t be over-complimentary about the performance of Antony, United’s £85m winger who has not registered a goal or assist all season.

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The Brazil international was substituted on 54 minutes to chants of “What a waste of money!” from the Forest supporters, but the former Ajax winger’s lack of impact in a United shirt is becoming a major problem for Ten Hag simply because the former Ajax manager pushed the club to sign him 18 months ago.

“He is so frustrating,” former United captain Gary Neville told Sky Sports. “I blame the football club. It’s not [his] fault he was bought for that money. There has to be a ‘no’ when it gets to that level. If I was looking at him at £25m, we would be looking differently.”

Pursuing Antony was a misjudgment on Ten Hag’s part, but he repeats it every time he selects Antony in his starting lineup. The player is simply not good enough for a club aiming to contend at the top of the Premier League, so Ten Hag’s inability to accept that will not help his cause with his new bosses — Brailsford will be on a three-person football board with co-owners Joel Glazer and Ratcliffe once INEOS’ investment is ratified by the Premier League in the weeks ahead.

There are mitigating circumstances that Ten Hag is dealing with, of course. United’s injury list has been lengthy all season and forward Rasmus Hojlund, who finally scored his first Premier League goal for the club in Tuesday’s 3-2 win against Aston Villa, missed the Forest game due to illness.

But all managers must overcome injuries and illness problems — they are a fact of life in elite sport — and those Ten Hag is expected to compete with are doing a better job of it right now.

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When asked to pinpoint United’s biggest problem, Ten Hag was direct: “The injuries,” he said. “Also some issues but mainly the injuries hold us back in the process. In January, we have a lot of players returning so then our levels can be higher.

“We have had nine different partnerships in the back. It doesn’t matter as well, the fans don’t want to hear this, they want to see us winning and that is what we have to serve them.”

The upside from this game was that Marcus Rashford scored from open play for the first time since September. Alejandro Garnacho also showed himself to be a star of the future again. But with Nicolás Domínguez and Morgan Gibbs-White scoring either side of Rashford’s goal for Forest, the points went to Nottingham Forest, leaving Ten Hag with more negative statistics.

Under Ten Hag, Man United now have lost 14 games this season with another 18 games left to play — Moyes lost only 16 in one full season at United.

Meanwhile, United’s 21 defeats suffered in 2023 in all competitions is the club’s worst mark since 1972 and the fourth-worst tally in its history.

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This team has also lost the same number of games — nine — as it suffered in the Premier League throughout the whole of last season. Nottingham Forest, for their part, beat Man United for the first time since 1994.

So, the crisis returns. Next up is an FA Cup third-round tie at Wigan Athletic, who sit 18th in EFL League One. Ten Hag simply cannot contemplate losing that one.

-ESPN

 

 

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Kunle Solaja is the author of landmark books on sports and journalism as well as being a multiple award-winning journalist and editor of long standing. He is easily Nigeria’s foremost soccer diarist and Africa's most capped FIFA World Cup journalist, having attended all FIFA World Cup finals from Italia ’90 to Qatar 2022. He was honoured at the Qatar 2022 World Cup by FIFA and AIPS.

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