MANCHESTER, England — The endless takeover saga at Manchester United that is about to enter its 12th month has provided useful cover for Erik ten Hag’s shortcomings. The Glazers’ deliberations can only divert attention for so long, though, and Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City might just have put the full spotlight onto the Old Trafford manager with Sunday’s 3-0 victory.
Two Erling Haaland goals and a late Phil Foden strike left the City fans chanting “Mind the Gap!” to their crisis-ridden neighbours. And that gap is getting bigger.
Being given a football lesson on home turf by City has become an ominous sign of what is to come for United’s managers since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013. A 3-0 defeat to Manuel Pellegrini’s City in 2014 hastened David Moyes’ departure after less than 12 months in charge, while Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was gone within a month of a supremely one-sided 2-0 defeat to Guardiola’s team in 2021.
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Ten Hag is nowhere near suffering the same fate as Moyes and Solskjaer, but the former Ajax coach is not safe from the sack because of results. He has avoided scrutiny because the sole focus of those above him at Old Trafford is fixed on whether the club will be sold or subject to a new football board run by prospective investors, INEOS.
None of his predecessors, including Jose Mourinho and Louis van Gaal, started a season as poorly as Ten Hag’s team, with this defeat United’s fifth loss in 10 Premier League fixtures. There is so much uncertainty as a result of the prolonged takeover situation, though, that the dismal form on the pitch has gone largely without scrutiny.
Until now. Ten Hag’s decision to substitute striker Rasmus Højlund midway through the second half prompted loud boos from the United supporters, a clear sign of unrest from the stands — unrest that has previously been directed at the Glazers.
Unfortunately for all of those post-Ferguson United managers, City have been the litmus test of progress, and the bar has been set incredibly high. Guardiola has built one of the greatest club teams in history, so measuring up would be a challenge for any team.
When Ten Hag oversaw a 2-1 victory against City in January, it seemed as though the 53-year-old Dutchman was putting United back on track and that the club’s long-awaited revival had begun. With this defeat coming just nine months later, though, United’s regression under Ten Hag was borne out by City’s utter dominance.
Yes, City’s first goal — a penalty awarded by referee Paul Tierney following the intervention of VAR official Michael Oliver — was a soft decision and one that tilted the game in the Blues’ favour, but from that point on, it was only a matter of how many City would win by. And they weren’t even playing anywhere near their usual imperious level.
United were a confused mess, and that was down to Ten Hag, because his team selection and tactics made little sense.
Ten Hag started with left-back Sergio Reguilón on the substitutes’ bench, opting instead to deploy right-footed centre-half Victor Lindelöf at left-back. Lindelöf, an honest if limited defender, constantly looked ill at ease.
At centre-half, former Real Madrid defender Raphaël Varane watched from the bench as Harry Maguire and Jonny Evans were tasked with marking Haaland. Ten Hag was happy to offload Maguire to West Ham United in the summer and even stripped him of the team captaincy, while Evans — playing his first Manchester derby at Old Trafford since being sent off in a 6-1 defeat against City in October 2011 — only landed a one-year contract this summer after impressing while training at the club following release from relegated Leicester.
As for Ten Hag’s big signings — players he pushed the club to recruit — they didn’t even make the starting 11. Antony and Mason Mount, who cost a combined £140 million in transfer fees, also watched from the bench.
The irony for Ten Hag was that his best attacker in the first half was Scott McTominay, another player he was happy to jettison in the summer.
Højlund, meanwhile, showed plenty of effort and commitment, but the £72m forward was starved of service because Ten Hag has yet to devise a tactical plan that will enable his centre-forward to get the ball in dangerous areas. The manager could expect that role of supply to be taken by Marcus Rashford, but last season’s top scorer has netted just once in the league this season, so whenever he has a sight of goal from within 30 yards, he shoots in desperation rather than look to pass to his attacking teammate.
Ten Hag, of course, cannot take full responsibility for the poor decision-making of his players, but he is the man charged with making the eleven work as a cohesive unit. He is failing in his most important task.
City’s players tend to make the right decisions, they play as a team, find the right pass and score the big chances. That is down to Guardiola’s coaching, tactics and the belief he instills in his players.
Under Ten Hag, United have no belief and they increasingly look as though they aren’t coached as they should be. Even the Glazers can’t be blamed for that. That all lies at the manager’s door.