Tuesday 7 May 2024

Groundhog day for Manchester United - again

Two years ago to the very day, Manchester United suffered one of our worst defeats in recent memory as an abject showing at a rampant Brighton put the seal on our worst ever Premier League season. 
Two weeks later, interim boss Ralf Rangnick was gone, replaced by United's number one target - the name at the top of everyone's list - Ajax's visionary, revolutionary manager Erik ten Hag.

Twenty four months and 731 days on, and here we are again. Only the opposition was different this time. United need four points from our last three games just to equal our lowest ever total of 58 from 2021-22. We have lost 13 times already (it was 12 in the Solskjaer/Rangnick season) and currently occupy eighth spot - one place lower than we finished even under David Moyes a decade ago. 

We've conceded 81 goals in all competitions across the season, the most ever in a single campaign since the mid 70s. 55 of those have come in the league, only two fewer than our all-time Premier League worst two seasons ago but still with three games to play. 

With title-chasing Arsenal and revitalised Newcastle still to come to Old Trafford, and a final day trip to bogey side Brighton, I cannot see us getting another point never mind winning another game. That's before we even discuss the FA Cup final. Throw in 62 injuries (perhaps a discussion for another day), a boardroom takeover not completed until December, corrupt refereeing and the form of a few players falling off a cliff, and it has simply been a disaster of a season. It's end cannot come soon enough. 
Even taking into account the mitigating factors, there was simply no excuse for yet another humiliation on the road on Monday night. 

The type of performance ten Hag was supposed to eradicate reared it's ugly head again and, perhaps even more worryingly, he seemed powerless to prevent it.

From the moment a ragtag United conceded the first goal under the slightest of pressure, the game was done. From the moment Michael Olise received a throw in on half way, walked into the acres of space in front of him and kept going to finish well, there was no way back. What a great idea it was to allow one of the best goalscoring wingers in the land to simply cut a swathe through the middle of our non existent midfield without tracking him, closing down or squeezing the central area. Maybe we should have allowed him a few more yards to run, just in case. It was a goal so spectacularly shambolic it was almost impressive. United could do a lot worse than to sign Olise in the summer.  He was the best player on the park by a considerable distance. 

Wherever and whenever Palace fancied attacking, there were allowed to at will by a team lacking fight, skill, energy, attitude and any cohesion whatsoever. Under Oliver Glasner, the hitherto unknown Austrian appointed by the Eagles in February, Palace were dynamic, direct, pacy, penetrative and powerful - everything ten Hag's United were not. This is Glasner's first foray into English football, he has been in charge at Selhurst Park for a little over two months and there's already an identikit, a vision and a plan. A completely new way of playing against whatever this is meant to be from ten Hag's United.

The fact nine of the eleven starters at Palace are ten Hag era players was most damning of all. If the players have downed tools for yet another manager, then what does that say about the recruitment? Ther are his boys, his signings. Only the full-backs Diogo Dalot and Aaron Wan - Bissaka pre date ten Hag. Andre Onana, Casemiro, Antony, Mason Mount and Rasmus Hojlund were all acquired for hefty sums of money. Jonny Evans and Christian Eriksen were free signings. Kobbie Mainoo and Alejandro Garnacho are this side's future, the two players we should build the team around. Both have risen to prominence under ten Hag. But without the injured Bruno Fernandes, they looked around for leadership where there was none. This was a day where even two of United's better performers in a desperate season got dragged down to their colleagues levels. 

Whilst we're not in the business of singling out any individual for criticism, we need to talk about Casemiro. None of United's apparent superstars covered themselves in glory, but the Brazilian was perhaps the most abhorrent culprit. The five time Champions League winner was reduced to nothing more than a spectator as Olise and his partner in crime on the opposite winger, Eberechi Eze, with Jean - Phillippe Mateta the kind of powerful, physical presence even a regular centre-half has nightmares over.
Casemiro, signed as the figurehead of United's revival as a totemic and transformative serial winner, instead epitomised our cowardly, spineless and gutless surrender. He dived in needlessly instead of holding his position to allow Olise as much room as he needed for the opener. Then he was meekly barged off the ball on the byline by Daniel Munoz  to cross for Olise to score  his second, and Palace's fourth. In his defence, he is not a centre-half but has looked devoid of energy and industry, sinking under instead of stepping up as United have floundered of late. Casemiro looks leggy, he looks done and is fully checked out as a United player. 

An offer from the mega rich Saudi league or MLS will surely be coming his way in the summer - he is our highest earner and is meant to be one of United's leadership group. After a stunning debut season at Old Trafford, it is alarming to witness how quickly even the basics seem to have deserted him. Is he a victim of United's implosion, or part of the cause? Alongside him, Jonny Evans looked every inch his 36 years as he was caught flat footed by Mateta to saunter through and slam in the second. It is not Evans fault - he was the only centre-back we had available and was thrown in at the eleventh hour despite failing a fitness test. United's thirteenth different centre back pairing of the season was, unsurprisingly, found wanting. 

If something ceases to function, can it be said to exist at all? Christian Eriksen is another - like Casemiro - who was signed to herald in a new era but he was upstaged by his less heralded, but supremely more mobile and progressive counterpart Adam Wharton. 

All eyes have been on United's talented youngster Mainoo, and rightfully so, but even he was overshadowed by the performance of his young compatriot. The Englishman seemed drawn to the ball like a magnet, always in the right place at exactly the right moment for Palace. He was excellent positionally and caught the eye with his combative energy and slick, between the lines passing. The obligatory gap in United's midfield became a gaping chasm as Wharton seized control of everything around him, the standout player in a midfield consisting of Mainoo and Mount. In stark contrast, none of those in Red ever seemed to be where they've needed, with time and space granted to each and every opponents in midfield, on the wings and in behind. 

Up front, Hojlund toiled admirably but again got no service and was hooked after 80 minutes of nothing. This current mess is not his fault and he should be absolved of blame. 

So where does this leave us? Are we going to sack ten Hag and simply restart the same rinse and repeat cycle? Or do we put this down as a freakishly bad one off and build again with the Dutchman next season? A new manager doesn't make these players any better. A new manager doesn't de-age Casemiro or make Eriksen mark properly. If we do decide to part ways, most of the squad need to go with him. I would only definitely keep Garnacho, Hojlund, Mainoo and - dependent on fitness - Martinez. The rest I would not be against moving on. When are we going to stop pinning all the blame on our manager and look for the players to take responsibility. There is no doubt ten Hag is a good manager. He overachieved in his first season at United and has not suddenly lost his mojo overnight. He is just at a club where no manager can succeed. 
It is a mystery how you can go from that brilliant, exciting young Ajax side which took Europe by storm, to this. A side which is everything and nothing. If he does indeed go to recently deposed German champions Bayern Munich, I've no doubt he will do well there. 
Each time United have opted for a change in the Old Trafford hotseat, there has been a clear front runner to be the successor. This time, Thomas Tuchel is probably the best of a bad bunch but there's no one as a very obvious upgrade on ten Hag. 

As INEOS approach their first summer in control of all football operations, the job facing them - and United - is one akin to climbing Everest in slippers. For the first time in almost 20 years, I have confidence the men in the corridors of power at Old Trafford will get this right. 
Two years on from United's battering at Brighton, nothing, on the pitch at least, has changed. 

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