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Thursday, July 18, 2024

Inside Man Utd’s week of woe: Greenwood U-turn, Burnley humbling, key injuries

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Manchester United have endured some challenging weeks in their recent history, but the past seven days feel up there with any of them.It started with a resolution, of sorts, to the Mason Greenwood affair, but using statements that only invited more scrutiny on the club’s leadership, lurched to a damaging 2-0 defeat at Tottenham Hotspur, and then got worse when Mason Mount and Luke Shaw suffered muscle injuries, ruling them out for several weeks.There was no indication of any new signings before next Friday night’s transfer deadline and no money was recouped from sales. Throw in a 3-0 loss to promoted Burnley in a training-ground friendly at Carrington and a bid for their England women’s international goalkeeper Mary Earps and it added up to a week to forget for the club.This is the story of that week.GO DEEPERThe day Man Utd staff confronted CEO Arnold over Greenwood, Antony and behaviour towards womenMONDAYThe Greenwood decisionMason Greenwood had been subject to an internal investigation by Manchester United since February, when charges of attempted rape, assault, and coercive control against him were dropped by the UK’s Crown Prosecution Service.After months of speculation, at 3pm on Monday, United announced that Greenwood would leave the club and continue his career away from Old Trafford. “All those involved, including Mason, recognise the difficulties with him recommencing his career at Manchester United,” a club statement read. “It has therefore been mutually agreed that it would be most appropriate for him to do so away from Old Trafford, and we will now work with Mason to achieve that outcome.”This decision represented a U-turn on United’s initial plan to reintegrate the 21-year-old striker, as revealed by The Athletic last Wednesday. Chief executive Richard Arnold held a meeting with the club’s executive leadership in the first week of August to inform them that the plan was for Greenwood to return to the first-team squad. Mason Greenwood outside court (Lindsey Parnaby/AFP via Getty Images)Upon publication of The Athletic’s report, United insisted that a decision “had not yet been made” but still faced internal unrest and external criticism for their willingness to bring back a player accused of sexual and physical abuse.Following further reporting from The Athletic detailing their plans to reinstate Greenwood, United held crisis talks last Friday and changed their position.Despite reaching a mutual agreement with Greenwood to part ways, United said their internal investigation had concluded that the player did not commit the crimes he was charged with. United reached this view despite admitting to having “limited powers of investigation which meant we were reliant on third-party cooperation”.At the same time as announcing Greenwood’s imminent departure, United released an open letter from Arnold addressed to supporters.In it, Arnold wrote: “While we were unable to access certain evidence for reasons we respect, the evidence we did collate led us to conclude that Mason did not commit the acts he was charged with.”Tottenham post-mortemErik ten Hag went through the Spurs defeat with his players and was unhappy at their efforts after a promising opening to the game. In his press conference yesterday (Friday), he revealed what he told them. “It is not about the midfield, it is about the back and the front, that is why we were open,” Ten Hag said. “They didn’t run. Or they run in the wrong moment — too late. Especially the front didn’t recover.“It happened. You can’t turn it around. But it’s a demand here (at United), if you want to win games.“First 35 minutes, we were so good in the game, dominated totally, we should have scored minimum once, but I think two. They (Tottenham) were nowhere, nothing, and then things happened in the game, then they (United’s players) got distracted, not doing their jobs anymore.“That is a demand from a Manchester United player and team, I am not used to it from this team. That is what the fans can expect and we have to demand (it).”Asked if he was angry with his players, Ten Hag said, “I told them, I gave them the feedback: ‘This is not acceptable, we have to do it as a team, do it with togetherness.’ Every individual has to take responsibility. We need accountable players.”Ten Hag insisted his players are big enough to take such criticism:“Ah, yeah. We are in the same boat. I am responsible for it. Me as well. We have to do that in togetherness and we have to face (the fact that) the first two games were not good enough, but still we won one. From the other, we can take the positives: if we do the right things in the first 35 minutes, we have a very good team, and we will win games if everyone is doing their job.”TUESDAYGreenwood aftermathThe fallout from the Greenwood decision continued the following day, with many supporters and public figures questioning United’s assertion that the player did not commit the offences he was charged with.Others pointed to the inconsistency between that finding and their decision to let him leave. A member of campaign group Female Fans Against Greenwood’s Return, giving her name only as Carly, felt United’s statement suggested they had initially planned for him to be reintegrated into the squad.“It almost feels like, ‘We could have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for those pesky fans and those intrusive reporters’,” she told The Athletic’s Talk of the Devils podcast. “It just seems that they’d made the decision, they were very keen for the comeback to happen.”Members of other fan groups have separately told The Athletic that United’s statement came across as defensive and that the club’s handling of the case has eroded faith in the hierarchy at Old Trafford, despite them ultimately reaching the decision that many fans wanted.Gary Neville, the long-time United full-back and now influential Sky Sports pundit, agreed that United had reached the correct decision but described their handling of the process as “pretty horrible”, saying: “When you have significant and difficult situations like this, it requires an authoritative leadership. That comes from the very top and Manchester United don’t have that.”Rachel Riley, a UK television presenter and United fan, accused the club of “gaslighting” fellow supporters in their statement and questioned whether they had the authority to determine if Greenwood did what he was charged with or not. Rachel Riley (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)“That was way beyond the remit of Manchester United to even look into the criminal guilt or innocence, never mind the civil level of guilt or innocence,” Riley told The News Agents podcast.Riley had previously said she would stop supporting the club if Greenwood was allowed to return. When asked whether she believed Arnold should consider his position, she said: “Yes, I do.”United called a meeting with players from their women’s team on Tuesday to explain their decision regarding Greenwood. Football director John Murtough led that conversation, outlining the process that brought the club to this point. Polly Bancroft, their head of women’s football, also spoke.There have been tensions between the women’s team and United because of the way they were thrust into the story, with a suggestion their opinion would be an important factor in the decision-making process. Players Mary Earps, Ella Toone and Katie Zelem, the captain, received abuse online from fans wanting Greenwood’s return when it was publicly perceived they would cast votes on the matter.In the event of United sticking by Greenwood, several of their women’s squad were prepared to criticise the club in the media. Privately, one player even intended to ask to leave had he been brought back.The meeting between Murtough and the players was described as reaching a positive conclusion.Toone, Earps and Zelem were not involved, having only returned from the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand that morning, in the wake of their 1-0 loss to Spain in Sunday’s final. Mary Earps (Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)The trio would have liked to attend remotely, but crossed wires meant United did not facilitate this, believing the players wanted to get on with their post-tournament holidays. One non-World Cup player dialled in via FaceTime on a team-mate’s phone.An unnamed club have made a bid for Earps, who won the Golden Glove award as the best goalkeeper at the World Cup, and she is said to be open to a new challenge. But United rejected the offer and want to secure Earps on a new contract, with her current one having only a year to run.Mount injuryOn Tuesday evening, United announced that summer signing Mason Mount had suffered a small injury against Tottenham.The club’s initial assessment was that Mount’s issue was only a minor one that would keep him sidelined until the international break in the first half of next month, however there is now an acceptance the timeline is uncertain and the England midfielder may still not be available for the visit of Brighton and Hove Albion when United’s season resumes on Saturday, September 16.Mount’s injury leaves Ten Hag light of midfield options as he seeks to arrest an underwhelming start to the season which has seen opponents regularly overwhelm United and expose them through the middle of the pitch.WEDNESDAYBurnley friendly defeatThere was better news on Tuesday night as United Under-21s secured a 5-3 penalty shootout win away to neighbours Stockport County of League Two in the EFL Trophy, taking two points from their opening group game after a 1-1 draw in the 90 minutes.However that had a knock-on effect for a behind-closed-doors friendly against Burnley played at United’s Carrington base the following day. A United side lost 3-0 to last season’s Championship title winners, a scoreline that set social media abuzz, although there was important context behind the result that was missed due to the fixture’s secretive nature.The friendly was arranged to help maintain the fitness of those players who had not started the first two league games, although the pool of available players was limited by the under-21s’ match the previous evening. A full first-team training session in the morning also restricted United’s options, as the starting line-up against Spurs needed to be supplemented by extra players to allow for competitive and worthwhile work.In the end, Jonny Evans, Alvaro Fernandez, Scott McTominay, Donny van de Beek, Hannibal, Facundo Pellistri and Anthony Martial were among those involved in the friendly, although eight of the 15-man squad for it have yet to play a competitive game for the first team. Anthony Martial (Gareth Copley/Getty Images)New signing Rasmus Hojlund did not feature, as his recovery from a stress fracture in his back continues to be carefully managed. Ten Hag expects the Dane to be ready for the trip to Arsenal next Sunday — September 3.Burnley, meanwhile, played their strongest line-up in the first half before making wholesale changes at half-time. As ever with friendlies, fitness was the priority rather than the final score. And though concerns have been raised about United’s conditioning in the opening weeks of the season, it is not unusual for the club to arrange games of this nature after the start of a new campaign.United played Burnley, Stoke City and Blackburn Rovers behind the scenes as late as October in the 2021-22 campaign, and faced Halifax Town after their opening-weekend defeat to Brighton last season.Onana’s international futureLater on Wednesday, reports suggested that Andre Onana could be ready to reconsider his international retirement.Onana has not represented Cameroon since leaving their World Cup squad midway through their finals campaign last year following a disagreement with head coach Rigobert Song, who remains in charge.If Onana were to come out of international retirement, United would presumably be unable to call upon their new £43.9million goalkeeper in the run-up to and then during the forthcoming Africa Cup of Nations, to be held between January 13 and February 11 in Ivory Coast.Sources close to Onana have dismissed the claims, however, insisting it is currently impossible for him to return to playing for Cameroon. THURSDAYShaw injury blowUnited’s injury woes worsened late on Thursday when Luke Shaw was ruled out for an extended period with an unspecified muscle injury, as revealed by The Athletic. The club are still assessing the extent of Shaw’s problem but there are concerns he could be sidelined for three months.The injury to Shaw comes at a time when United are short of established options at left-back — Tyrell Malacia, his backup, did not travel on the pre-season tour in the United States after sustaining an injury himself and is still weeks away from returning. Luke Shaw (Julian Finney/Getty Images)Brandon Williams moved to Ipswich Town of the Championship on a season-long loan hours before Shaw’s injury was confirmed. That transfer was too far along the way to reverse and, in any case, United want Williams to play regularly under Ipswich manager Kieran McKenna, a former United first-team coach for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.Fernandez is United’s only other natural left-back, though the 20-year-old is yet to make a senior appearance and was expected to also leave on loan this summer, with La Liga outfit Granada in talks to borrow him.Conversations over a contract for Evans continued, with a resolution close on a one-year deal. It is unclear if the 35-year-old rejoining a club he left for West Bromwich Albion in 2015 would affect fellow centre-back Harry Maguire’s situation. Maguire, who missed the Tottenham game with a foot injury, turned down the chance to join West Ham earlier in the window.FRIDAYTen Hag’s tense press conferenceTen Hag faced a grilling over his stance on Greenwood. He was asked four questions on the matter but declined to confirm he wanted the striker back or was planning for his reintegration. He said: “What Manchester United fans expect is a winning Manchester United. I am responsible for that and have to put all my effort and focus on the players who are available.”He denied United are short of options in attacking areas, although he must be smarting at the loss of two players through two muscle injuries in the space of 48 hours.Ten Hag said he will seek answers after the news on Mount and then Shaw. “There is always a reason, but you can’t avoid it in top football,” he said. “Players go to their limits and you see it across all the teams — injuries are coming. But it is our job to do research to find reasons, and maybe you can learn from it in the future.”United are looking at bringing in a short-term fix at left-back before the window closes at 11pm UK time (6pm ET) on Friday. “It can be because I think always you have to anticipate on situations,” Ten Hag conceded. “If there are good opportunities, yes. But it has to be the right player. Otherwise, we have to deal with the current squad.”The club did make progress on a deal for 25-year-old Fenerbahce goalkeeper Altay Bayindir, with Dean Henderson ready to join Crystal Palace. Those transfers, if completed, will be done simultaneously.SATURDAYThe protestThe mood among United supporters is fragile and fan group The 1958 have led calls to stage a sit-in protest after the final whistle against Nottingham Forest at Old Trafford this afternoon.The idea is for a large proportion of the crowd to stay in their seats for 60 minutes at the end of the match and voice their displeasure at the Glazer family’s ownership of the club, which is estimated to have cost United £1.5billion across the past 18 years in the forms of debt, interest payments, dividends and other costs associated to the family’s leveraged takeover.(Top photo: Rob Newell – CameraSport via Getty Images)

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