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Erik ten Hag did not try to defend the indefensible but, after his team showed precious little fight, he pronounced himself a fighter. His programme notes had contained the assertion that it was “only a matter of time before we show our true selves.” Instead, Manchester United had been truly awful, a wretched rabble who were overpowered by Newcastle United’s depleted side. If the England cricket team were mounting the most abject defence of a title at the World Cup, United’s attempt to retain the Carabao Cup felt their own brand of dreadful.
A season has spiralled into the realm of calamity. Ten Hag has tried to sugarcoat things in recent weeks, to claim his side were on the right track. Not now. “As a team we are not good enough and whatever the reasons are, it is no space for excuses,” he said. “It is below the standards everyone expects from Manchester United. It is not good enough by far. We have to put it right. I take responsibility for it. It is my team and they are not performing.”
The alternative phrasing is that they are performing terribly. Some 15 games into the season, United have lost more than they have won. Arguably, they have only been definitively better in a lone match so far, the Carabao Cup tie against Crystal Palace. They have been far worse on plenty of occasions.
In four days of ignominy, they have lost consecutive home games by at least three goals for the first time since 1962. Newcastle’s biggest win at Old Trafford since 1930 was not the only throwback to a season when the other United were relegated to the old Division 2. Not for 93 years had United lost five of their first 10 home matches of a campaign.
Now they have. On a night when Ten Hag’s team had more captains than shots on target, their armband passing between Casemiro, Victor Lindelof and substitute Bruno Fernandes, the victorious skipper was Sean Longstaff.
It may be a footnote in United’s year or a sign of the crisis in leadership at Old Trafford. But, for all the Glazers’ enduring failings, the immediate blame rests with Ten Hag, as he accepts. The Dutchman did not try to shy away from the scrutiny. “I understand it when the results are not there it is also a logical process that they are questioning that,” he added. “But I am confident I can do it. At all my clubs I have done it and also last year here I did it as well, but at this moment we are in a bad place.” Indeed, Old Trafford is a bad place for United: until recently, they were unbeaten at home in 31 games and almost a year. Now they have only scored five of the last 16 goals seen at their home ground.
If part of the question is whether he has gone beyond the point of no return, if he can reverse a historic slump, if the lacklustre group who forever seem less motivated than their opponents have given up on him, there is increasing evidence for the case for the prosecution. Ten Hag’s selections have been erratic this season, a host of decisions backfiring. Some players have veered in and out of favour; few combinations within the side have worked. United have been a costly shambles. New signings, whether Andre Onana, Sofyan Amrabat, Mason Mount or Rasmus Hojlund, have rarely had the desired impact. Last season’s three biggest buys – Lisandro Martinez, Casemiro and Antony – have all regressed, and alarmingly.
When Casemiro was removed at half-time, the temptation was to think it was because of another poor performance. Ten Hag said the Brazilian was injured, but his midfield remains a mess: far too susceptible on the counter-attack, offering too little control.
Ten Hag has appeared to be outcoached, even when beating Brentford and FC Copenhagen. Eddie Howe conjured a seismic win from youngsters and veterans, the reserves and those returning from injury. One of the more inadvertently damning comments came when the Newcastle manager admitted that his substitutions were premeditated, scheduled to give players a run out instead of a training session. They were brought on to prepare them for Arsenal on Saturday but excelled. A unified group showed commitment; United’s only came in the form of petulance and the hapless Hannibal Mejbri’s mistimed challenges. “I am confident that players will stand up,” Ten Hag said. They haven’t too often of late.
Ten Hag argued that battling qualities will be seen; his own. “I know it is not always going up and we have a lot of setbacks this season so far,” he said. “So I am a fighter.” Carry on like this, however, and sooner or later, he will be fighting to keep his job.