It says a lot about the state of the modern Manchester United that a manager who has Ajax at the top of his CV is dictating the conditions he needs to accept the vacancy at Old Trafford, but you can hardly blame Erik ten Hag for wanting assurances over what he’s getting himself into.
The biggest club in the world or the most chaotic soap opera in football? United won’t stop trumpeting their cause to be the former, but record numbers of Tik-Tok engagements and noodle partners aren’t going to make a new banner in the Stretford End.
On the pitch, this club has become a laughing stock. Standards are as low as they’ve been in decades and any United fans brave enough to tune in to events at the Etihad yesterday would have barely recognized the sport being played by Manchester City and Liverpool.
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The prospect of United even coming close to winning the league while Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp are still in the north west feels about as likely as this team playing well between now and the end of the season, but if Ten Hag decides this task is for him he needs to steer the club into a position to capitalize on the prospect of City and Liverpool finding life without their totemic managers isn’t quite as glorious.
The idea there might be a quick fix to United’s woes has been well and truly exposed over the previous five months. When Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was sacked it felt like a sharp tactician and an astute coach could engineer some rapid improvement in a talented squad, but Ralf Rangnick’s interim role has been disastrous.
The German will probably leave Old Trafford cursing these players, just as some of his predecessors have. There’s nothing like a spell managing this club to set back your own coaching career.
There’s no doubt where most of the blame lies for a shameful, shambolic season, however. You only had to witness the United players walking off the pitch at Goodison Park on Saturday to understand even the most loyal supporters hold those wearing the shirts responsible for this month.
Those supporters would have been applauding David de Gea’s latest bout of brutal honesty in his broadcast interview afterwards. The Spaniard has been at this club when it was successful and he evidently despairs at what he is seeing now.
“They played Wednesday and they were tired but they had more desire than us, that is not acceptable. Very sad to lose. It is a disgrace from us. We should be winning this game,” De Gea told BT Sport.
It’s hard to disagree with that assessment and it’s welcome to hear some honesty in a post-match interview, but De Gea’s savage views on his own teammates certainly suggest that all is not well in the United dressing room, something which we’ve been hearing a lot of this season.
While talking about United before kick-off on Merseyside, BT Sport spent around 10 minutes showing footage of their warm-up and what was noticeable was the lack of enjoyment from those players. A 50/1 winner in the Grand National a few miles down the road looked more likely than any United players breaking into a smile.
The substitutes took part in the usual round exercise, but while the top teams mix these exercises with intensity and fun, it looked a chore for United. Paul Pogba would have found it difficult to have put in less effort when his time in the circle arrived.
Watching United this season it’s seemed obvious that nobody is enjoying it. This is a collection of players representing a club many dream of playing for, yet nobody seems to be having fun doing so.
De Gea went on in his analysis, laying the blame at those playing further forward than him for some of the struggles this season.
“We don’t create, that’s the problem. We don’t even create proper chances to score. I don’t know what to say, to be honest,” he said.
A winning team can quickly become a happy team, but the body language of this United team suggests it will take more than a few victories to discover any unity.
Since Christmas, at least, they’ve looked like a group of individuals and even if there was any semblance of a shared purpose left in that dressing room then De Gea wouldn’t have let rip in the manner he did. He threw some teammates under the bus and evidently had no concern about doing so.
The battle facing Ten Hag is not only to give United a modern identity as well as improving the squad but to weed out the factions in the dressing room that are making this a miserable place to play football. Team spirit is essential to successful teams and United just don’t have it.
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