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Friday, April 19, 2024

Erik ten Hag powerless as Brentford deny Manchester United a win they never deserved

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Football

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About 30 seconds after Mason Mount’s goal gave Manchester United a scandalous 96th-minute lead, and about two minutes before Kristoffer Ajer scored a merited 99th-minute equaliser, hundreds of Brentford fans were streaming out of the stadium. One man walked past the press box chuntering under his breath before he couldn’t take it any more, firing off a volley of expletives like a machine gun clip before marching out and into the night.

Who could blame him? He had watched Brentford take 30 shots, the most of any game in their Premier League history, and yet fail to score. They had hit the bar twice, the post once and had a goal ruled out. They had dominated the match by every conceivable metric, other than perhaps ‘passes made with the shoulder’ (Kobbie Mainoo, one). So when Mount came off the bench and flashed a shot across Mark Flekken and into the far corner, 16,000 Brentford fans wondered how they had lost a game they had owned.

Yet the real sting in the tail wasn’t Mount’s goal after all. Ivan Toney wriggled away from the sluggish substitutes Lisandro Martinez and Casemiro before jabbing the ball across the six-yard box for Ajer to fire home. Those Brentford fans now stomping down Kew Bridge Road would have heard the roar. With their 31st shot, Andre Onana was finally beaten, and a 1-1 draw was the least Brentford deserved in their fight against the drop.

That warm fuzzy feeling that United felt at the end of their incredible FA Cup win over Liverpool two weeks ago dissipated in half an hour of domination. By half-time United’s positivity was forgotten. By the end of 90 minutes they were clinging on to a draw, and it is somehow worse that they contrived to get one after Mount’s goal.

At the end of a week in which Erik ten Hag had had to bat away speculation about his future, this night did nothing to help his cause. This was not a strategy by United to soak up pressure, to coax Brentford into a place of false security before stealing the game. There were no rope-a-dope tactics here. This was an away team utterly overwhelmed, unable to cope and getting away with it through sheer luck.

Ten Hag’s problems went beyond Brentford’s relentless assault on his team. Raphael Varane and Victor Lindelof both had to be replaced after picking up injuries. Martinez came on for his first appearance in two months to replace the latter, a welcome sight for United fans and desperately needed given the dire circumstances.

Aston Villa and Tottenham won earlier in the day, and in a season when the top five will probably enter next year’s Champions League, United look unlikely to finish higher than sixth. The uplifting win over Liverpool should not distract from the broader picture, and someone as coldly analytical as Sir Dave Brailsford is unlikely to have been swept up in the emotion of the Cup. Ten Hag needs a transformative finish to the season.

United were under pressure here almost from the start, when Brentford began pinning their opponents inside the box and holding them there. Set-pieces were the weapon of choice as the visitors fended off seven corners and a free-kick on the edge of the area in the first 30 minutes.

The best chances fell to Toney: first a header from a corner which he glanced wide, then a one-on-one with Onana after being sent in behind by Yoane Wissa’s intelligent first-time pass. Toney shifted his body right and fired the ball to the left of Onana, but it bounced back off the inside of the post and United scrambled back to clear.

Ivan Toney slams the floor in frustration

(AFP via Getty Images)

The big centre-back Mathias Jorgensen hit the crossbar a few minutes later with a powerful header after one of Brentford’s cleverer short-corner routines as shots rained down on the United goal. Toney, the captain in Christian Norgaard’s absence, tried again as he dribbled at a petrified Lindelof and shot inside the box, but he missed the target when he might have expected to score.

United’s contribution to the first half was to defend desperately and do so little with 56 per cent of the possession that that particular statistic needed double checking. When they got close to the Brentford box and a wall of defenders in red and white, the tempo slowed to a standstill as if they’d stumbled into a forest of fog.

United began the second half with more speed and intent as Bruno Fernandes and Diogo Dalot fired off pot-shots, and they brought a brilliant save from Flekken when Fernandes set up Hojlund in the penalty area. Hojlund shot hard at goal with his first touch and Flekken flung himself to his right to push the ball to safety, but it was a rare moment of threat.

At the other end Onana had to be just as sharp, diving low to his right to keep out Yehor Yarmoliuk’s low shot rolling towards the corner and then leaping up to block Keane Lewis-Potter’s follow-up. Toney carefully watched a long pass before steering a controlled volley just over the bar.

Ten Hag didn’t take long to make a change, replacing Alejandro Garnacho with Antony, but the Brazilian failed to bring any inspiration as he had done against Liverpool and it was Brentford chasing a winner.

Bryan Mbeumo was given an ovation as he entered the fray in his first appearance since December, and he was almost the hero, first crossing precisely for Toney to score only for VAR to rule offside, and then crashing a shot against the crossbar. The crowd behind the goal groaned.

Then they howled as Casemiro rolled in Mount on the left side of the box to strike across Flekken and just inside the post. Ajer responded, but Brentford should have taken away much more, and somehow United escaped with a point more than they deserved.

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