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Friday, June 14, 2024

End is nigh for soggy Erik ten Hag as Man Utd sink to new levels of ineptitude

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It took an evening deluge to throw Manchester United’s malaise into the sharpest relief. The Old Trafford roof leaked with such violence that fans in the South Stand were left watching a veritable waterfall. Ethan Wheatley and Omari Forson, two academy products promoted to the bench, forlornly chased a lost cause against an error-strewn Arsenal side who should have been ripe for the kill. And in the midst of this soggy scene stood Erik ten Hag in a drenched pale suit, barking instructions to nobody in particular, knowing that a record-extending 14th defeat of this Premier League season all but condemned him to a summer sacking. Rarely had the mood here felt so fatalistic.Even Ten Hag’s choice of suit carried a certain pathos. It was identical to the beige number he had worn to his United unveiling in 2022, when he boldly declared that he could break the Liverpool-Manchester City duopoly. On that occasion, those sceptical of his abilities mischievously dubbed him “Erik ten Months”. So far he has lasted 24, but the appetite for any more of the shapeless torpor he has overseen is dwindling fast.At a personal level, it is mortifying for the Dutchman. He entered this job radiating optimism, proclaiming his ambition to restore United to their rightful spot at the summit. He threatens to end it in a state of helplessness, reduced to deploying Casemiro as a makeshift centre-back, only to witness the Brazilian commit a second unforgivable error in six days. The player’s trajectory from five-time Champions League winner to lame carthorse mirrors the manager’s own downward spiral. Ten Hag was the future once. Now, finally, the putrefaction at United has engulfed him.This was quite the day for Sir Jim Ratcliffe to have hosted his “Wembley of the North” talks with Sir Keir Starmer. There is nothing like discussing a Trafford Park regeneration with the probable next Prime Minister while the full horror of your stadium’s deterioration plays out in front of you. Few could dispute the logic of the project, with United supporters liable to receive more of a soaking under the ramshackle old roof than from the springtime downpours. But he needed no clearer signal than this match to realise that an Ineos-led makeover would require far more than a remodelling of Old Trafford.In the 11 years since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, has there even been a United line-up as limited as this? Shorn of Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford, they resembled lambs to the slaughter as Arsenal sought to sustain their quest for a first league title in 20 years. It did not pan out as such, with United avoiding the rank humiliation that many supporters had feared. This owed far more, though, to Arsenal’s profligacy than to the hosts’ resilience.A less tormented team would not have needed this many invitations to derail Mikel Arteta’s dreams. United’s finishing was woeful: no sooner had Alejandro Garnacho finally escaped the shackles of William Saliba than he sliced hopelessly wide, burying his head in his hands. You could detect a similar reaction from Roy Keane as United, the palest shadow of the sides he had captained, toiled in vain to summon a late salvo.Alejandro Garnacho squandered one of United’s few chances – Ash Donelon/Getty Images“The disappointment for me in the last half an hour was United,” Keane said. “Arsenal have come to Old Trafford over the years, but I bet they couldn’t believe how bad United were. Whatever bits of possession they had, look at the end product and the lack of quality. You talk about the great teams United have had over the years. But no decision-making, nobody digging anyone out, making mistakes, falling over, not putting demands on each other? That United team there…they’re so bad.”Lest Keane’s comments be dismissed as a reflexive diatribe, the statistics support his anguish, with United under Ten Hag discovering fresh extremes of ineptitude. On 54 points, they are in danger of surpassing their lowest ever points tally, the 58 achieved under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer during the Norwegian’s wretched final campaign.Should they succumb to Newcastle on Wednesday night, they will reach a record number of home defeats in a single season, with 10. The 82 goals they have conceded in all competitions represents their most dismal return in 53 years. To cap it all, their goal difference in the league stands at minus four, a nadir not endured since the Tommy Docherty era in 1974. That year, they were relegated.You wanted to see some stirring of life, a sense that United understood the necessity of a response after their 4-0 humbling at Crystal Palace. Amad Diallo did the most to provide it with his quicksilver movement, but the outlook beyond was bleak. United were too lumpen, too bereft of imagination, to pounce on Arsenal’s inadequacies. The very least any would-be champions should expect when they come here is a ferocious late surge, but it never materialised, with fans streaming for the exits before the final whistle blew.The storm offered a reflection on United’s mood, as a pristine May afternoon dissolved in a puddle, with ominous thunderclaps overhead. Ratcliffe insisted he did not underestimate the scale of the challenge when he bought into his childhood club last December. But surely, five months on, it was not too much to ask to see the odd green shoot of recovery? Instead, as the water cascaded down the stadium steps, he surveyed only the steady drip of decrepitude.

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