Manchester United have gone past embarrassment – but they are still a danger to Arsenal

Logic says Arsenal should destroy United when they meet at Old Trafford on Sunday, but football has capacity to surprise and even Erik ten Hag’s team can add to the chaos in the five days that will decide the title

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Friday 10 May 2024 07:44 BST
Man United boss Ten Hag vows to fight on as he rues ‘worst defeat’ against Crystal Palace

It’s got to the point where, after nights like Monday, Erik ten Hag doesn’t really know what to say any more. That’s part of the problem at Manchester United right now. The manager’s approaches aren’t getting responses, and many of the players have stopped listening. That’s what makes a defeat like that 4-0 to Crystal Palace inevitable, while also inuring the squad to the effects of such humiliations.

It’s worse because there have now been so many. This was no longer abnormal, even for a club like United. There have been at least nine matches in Ten Hag’s two seasons alone that have descended into farce. That is merely a conservative count, too, and it says much that one of them wasn’t even a defeat. It’s impossible not to include the recent penalty shootout victory over Coventry City in the FA Cup semi-final. That included a three-goal collapse that foreshadowed so much that happened against Palace. Ten Hag’s United are so easy to play through, which means that Coventry game is obviously on this list.

Ten Hag’s humiliations

  • Brentford 4-0 Manchester United, August 2022
  • Manchester City 6-3 Manchester United, October 2022
  • Liverpool 7-0 Manchester United, March 2023
  • Sevilla 3-0 Manchester United, April 2023
  • Copenhagen 4-3 Manchester United, November 2023
  • Manchester United 0-3 Bournemouth, December 2023
  • Chelsea 4-3 Manchester United, April 2024
  • Manchester United 3-3 Coventry City, April 2024
  • Crystal Palace 4-0 Manchester United, May 2024

It obviously isn’t just about the scoreline but the nature of these games. That's why there’s even an argument to be made for some victories, let alone draws. For Ten Hag's part, United had many similar games before his appointment, which points to the huge structural issues he has had to contend with. This isn’t all on the Dutch coach. A clearout of the squad is obviously needed. Ineos are well aware of that, and have been especially critical of recruitment in their audit of the club.

It’s just Ten Hag has visibly made this worse. It’s a shambles. Even allowing for the multiple personnel issues that Ten Hag has, they have been compounded by the inability to impose a proper tactical system. There's something bigger here than the embarrassment of one bad loss. They’re not sudden football implosions. They're because the team doesn’t work properly. They're undoubtedly the easiest side to face in the Premier League, relative to resources, but maybe even outright. Conceding so many goals to Coventry and Palace is a direct consequence of constantly allowing so many shots on goal.

Ten Hag’s side suffered their heaviest defeat of the season at Selhurst Park, adding to a long list of embarrassments
Ten Hag’s side suffered their heaviest defeat of the season at Selhurst Park, adding to a long list of embarrassments (Getty Images)

Given all of that, as well as how Ineos are assessing the club, it’s hard to think they will continue with Ten Hag. The constant speculation about Gareth Southgate won’t go away. Ineos do see him as a top candidate. He has a strong relationship with many of the club’s key figures. There are multiple complications with potentially getting Southgate this summer, however, since he wouldn’t even be free until England’s Euro 2024 campaign ends. That could be into late July. As with Dan Ashworth, though, Ineos have shown they are prepared to wait if it’s the right man. They don’t think inconveniences of time should completely condition such decisions, as it just puts off the future, otherwise.

They do have to be conscious of Profit and Sustainability Rules, mind. That weighs over the entire summer for almost all Premier League clubs. It will at least influence some decisions, given that it has so far dictated why Newcastle United are so intransigent on letting Ashworth go. Many in the game would chuckle if such concerns did affect United making the changes they want and need.

It would only lend to the chaos surrounding the club at the moment. That is the wider feeling from such humiliations, and why it feels a threshold has been crossed. We’ve gone way beyond embarrassment to comedy.

There is an unfortunately more infantilised term for that, that Arsenal will be all too familiar with. The extent of the humiliation for United makes it unavoidable. It is the club’s “banter era”. Every time you think it can’t get worse, it does. So much for the Ralf Rangnick season proving a nadir. This is that again, but more extreme, since Ten was supposed to be the first modern coaching appointment of the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era.

Sir Jim Ratcliffe will be assessing United’s final weeks of the season
Sir Jim Ratcliffe will be assessing United’s final weeks of the season (PA Wire)

It is for all those reasons it might actually be worse than Arsenal’s era, too. For one, United are a bigger and wealthier club with a more distinguished history of success. There was also the fact that Arsenal knew what the problem was. Arsene Wenger stayed for too long and there were then multiple institutional issues to resolve. Once they realised, they did fix everything quite quickly. A mere two and a half years after Mikel Arteta came in, they were ready to compete for a title. That should offer some hope for Ineos. It can be fixed quite quickly. It’s just there is so much to fix.

All of which brings us to this Sunday, which has immense potential to offer another game on the humiliation list. United are now making so many errors that Arsenal should be able to comfortably win if they just perform with some degree of competence. Arteta’s team have the capacity to destroy United.

Except, there is a conspicuous absence from that list, that also goes back much further. If you extend it past Ten Hag’s time, after all, Tottenham Hotspur would get on for their 6-1 victory at Old Trafford in 2020. Arsenal wouldn’t appear, though. Their record at Old Trafford is so poor, having won just once there in their last 16 league visits. That has included a mere five draws, too. There is obviously an emotional history to this game for Arsenal, and that is the one spin on recent form. It was the same with United’s recent matches against Liverpool.

Arsenal must win at Old Trafford to keep the pressure on Man City in the title race
Arsenal must win at Old Trafford to keep the pressure on Man City in the title race (Getty Images)

Logic suggested they should get destroyed. Instead, football displayed its capacity to surprise. Something else happened, even if it’s hard to pin down what that something was. This Arsenal, meanwhile, have their own form for being emotionally affected by such encounters. A clear example was the 2-2 draw at Liverpool last season. That was in the heat of the title race and this is even more of a furnace. These could well be the five days that decide the title either way. If Manchester City slip against Fulham on Saturday, Arsenal have this immense chance. If City win, Arsenal absolutely have to do it against United, to put maximum pressure on the champions for a Tuesday trip to Tottenham.

There’s so much swirling around. It just says an awful lot that there must be an appeal for some kind of chaos for United to have any chance. That is almost the most embarrassing element of all - but not quite.

For Arsenal’s part, their own propensity for blow-ups appears to have calmed of late. You only have to look at the response to the defeats to Bayern Munich and Aston Villa that were expected to bring the implosion of last season. They have instead been the model of composure. It has maybe even been their best spell of the season, where the Gunners have been at their most convincing. Arteta is also responsible for Arsenal’s one league win at Old Trafford since 2006, which was in his very first trip there in 2020.

Arsenal can’t concern themselves with any of that. They just have to focus on the basics here, to perform to a competent level. Manchester United must do the same, but in a very different way, for very different reasons.

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