For the first time as Manchester United manager, Erik ten Hag is under pressure. At Old Trafford on Tuesday night, Turkish champions Galatasaray inflicted a sixth defeat of the season and United’s second in four days at home.
United’s record after 10 games of the 2023-24 season is now worse than under Jose Mourinho and under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in the seasons they were sacked. Neither Mourinho nor Solskjaer could turn it around after disastrous starts, and the club eventually decided there was no other option but to make a change.
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Mourinho was eventually dismissed after 24 games in December 2018, and Solskjaer after 17 games in November 2021; it already feels like Ten Hag is at the top of the same slippery slope. Sources close to United were insisting on Wednesday morning that Ten Hag’s job is safe and that the Dutchman is viewed as their manager “for the long term,” but there is no getting away from the fact that results dictate everything.
Mourinho signed a new contract in January 2018 — less than a year before his departure — and Solskjaer agreed a new deal in July 2021, just four months before he was canned. It shows that when it comes to football, “long-term” can be an extremely vague phrase.
Crucially for Ten Hag, he still has the backing of the majority of match-going fans and although there were boos following the defeats to Crystal Palace and Galatasaray, it was more a reaction to the performance and the result than an act of mutiny aimed at the manager. The big question facing Ten Hag, however, is whether the players are still on his side.
Both Mourinho and Solskjaer found that, after difficult starts in their final seasons, things began to unravel very quickly. Mourinho had four wins and three defeats from his first 10 games in 2018-19 and when he was sacked Dec. 18, his record was 10 wins and seven defeats from 24 games. The drop-off under Solskjaer was even more rapid, as five wins and three losses from the first 10 games in 2021-22 turned into seven wins and seven losses by the time he was sacked Nov. 21 after 17 matches.
Experienced managers and coaches will often say that the tenacity with which a team defends is usually a good indicator of the desire within the dressing room, and it will be a huge red flag for Ten Hag that his team is experiencing the same defensive problems that contributed to the downfall of his predecessors.
In Mourinho’s last full season in charge in 2017-18, United had the second-best defensive record in the Premier League and the most clean sheets. By the end of his reign, however, that stability had disappeared, and in Mourinho’s final 10 games in charge, United conceded 15 goals. It was a similar story for Solskjaer, who watched his team ship 22 goals in his final 10 games as manager, including four at Leicester and Watford and five at home to Liverpool.
Worryingly for Ten Hag, United have conceded 18 goals in 10 games in all competitions this season, their most at this stage since 1966. Ten Hag can point to injuries to key players such as Luke Shaw and Lisandro Martínez as a mitigating factor, but some of the defending against Galatasaray bordered on calamity.
The visitor’s first goal came after a hopeful ball was punted toward Wilfried Zaha, and the former Crystal Palace winger outmuscled Diogo Dalot on the edge of the penalty area. Both Sofyan Amrabat, playing as a makeshift left-back, and Victor Lindelöf made mistakes for the second goal, while the third came from another Amrabat error compounded by Lindelof and Raphaël Varane being so slow to react to what is essentially a headed clearance from Davinson Sánchez.
To make matters worse, André Onana, the £47.2m summer signing from Inter, is enduring a disastrous start to his United career. After letting in a howler of a goal in the 4-3 defeat to Bayern Munich, his sloppy pass out against Galatasaray caused Casemiro to get sent off — the third time the Brazilian midfielder has been shown a red card in just 61 games since his move from Real Madrid.
United twice led against Galatasaray, but conceded an equaliser six minutes after Rasmus Hojlund’s first goal and just four minutes after his second. It’s a familiar pattern: Bayern scored four minutes after United’s first goal at the Allianz Arena and two minutes after their second. Arsenal scored twice in five minutes in a 3-1 win at the Emirates in September, and Nottingham Forest got two in four minutes at Old Trafford in August. Bayern’s first two goals in Munich came in the space of just four minutes.
This isn’t a team that deals well with setbacks and even last season, they conceded three in 10 minutes in the 6-3 defeat to Manchester City and three in 19 minutes in the 7-0 humiliation at Liverpool.
Sources close to Ten Hag have told ESPN that he doesn’t feel he can be as harsh in his criticism of the players as he’d like because there are concerns about the mental fragility of the squad. He has also raised the issue of having the right body language when setbacks happen in games, and is increasingly frustrated that his message isn’t getting through to particular members of his squad.
Despite tight financial fair play restrictions, there are already suggestions Ten Hag will push to sign a new central defender in January, but for now, his job is to trigger some sort of reaction with the players he’s got when Brentford visit Old Trafford on Saturday.
When the pressure was on Mourinho and Solskjaer, they couldn’t turn things around and eventually paid the price with their jobs. United remain resolute in their belief that Ten Hag is still the right man, but his fate will be decided by results and, as those who have gone before have found, a descent into disaster at United can be a hard thing to stop.