Manchester United are a mess — and it could be about to get even worse

Erik ten Hag’s begin their Champions League campaign with issues in every department - and now Bayern Munich could compound those problems at United

Richard Jolly
Senior Football Correspondent
Monday 18 September 2023 12:21 BST
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'We are unfortunate in this moment' - Ten Hag after 3-1 defeat to Brighton, but urges his side to respond with character

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Danny Schwarz is the manager of Homburg now and Tim Walter is the manager of Hamburg. Sebastian Hoeness has followed in Walter’s footsteps for a second time by taking charge of VfB Stuttgart. Coaching Bayern Munich II tends to be a stepping stone to a senior job. But not normally one of this magnitude.

When Erik ten Hag goes to the Allianz Arena in the Champions League on Wednesday, it should be a triumphant return. He was nicknamed “mini Pep” in his time at Bayern but was a lower-profile figure in a lower-profile job. Now he is manager of one of the few clubs in world football who might be bigger even than Bayern. It is a personal triumph for a manager who described his decision to quit a first-team job at Go Ahead Eagles, who he had led to promotion, to go to Bayern’s youthful reserve team as an “unlogical move”. The danger, however, is that it becomes an unenjoyable reunion.

For Manchester United, thoughts of Bayern are indelibly associated with memories of 1999, with the goals from Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer that rendered them treble winners and champions of England and took their unbeaten streak to 33 games. Now they head to Bavaria with three losses in four, with the setbacks still outnumbered by the problems, with issues in every department of the side. They have lacked form, changed formation, fielded the untried, the understudies, the out of position and the out of sorts. They have called upon Jonny Evans, who first played for them in 2007, and conceded to Danny Welbeck, who first scored for them in 2008. Under Ten Hag last season, they seemed to benefit from clarity of thought and unity of purpose. Yet they seemed to have a manager who could turn United back from a soap opera to a football club.

Now United again feel a mess, with Ten Hag unable to control everything from the mildly ridiculous to the more harrowing. When Anthony Martial appeared to turn up several hours early for training on Thursday, it was a harmless irrelevance, but sadly typical at United right now; it also prompted the thought that Martial’s timing has been poor for quite some time. But while Martial’s de facto replacement, and Ten Hag’s £72m striker Rasmus Hojlund faces comparisons that are both inevitable and unfair with Harry Kane on Wednesday, Ten Hag’s costliest buy will be missing.

Antony’s leave of absence stems from serious allegations of assault by three women, which he denies but which follows United’s aborted attempt to bring back Mason Greenwood. That prompted suggestions they had mislaid their moral compass. Thus far, Ten Hag has been more critical of the banished Jadon Sancho than Antony.

Without both, United lost to Brighton, whose starting 11 cost £17m, about 20 per cent of Antony’s fee; Ten Hag’s chosen 11 came in at £347m and his explanation that prices are inflated when United come calling scarcely accounted for the differential. Last week, statistics from the CIES Football Observatory showed United have the most expensive squad in world football, at almost £1bn.

But the two most dearest members of the current squad are unavailable; the third priciest, Hojlund, has nine senior goals in major European leagues to his name. VAR denied him a strike on his full debut against Brighton which could have relieved some of the pressure conferred by the price tag. The young Dane has at least offered some encouragement in his first two appearances; the boos that greeted his substitution were the first indication Ten Hag’s decisions are being disputed by the crowd.

(Getty Images)

The other 2023 arrivals have had troubled starts. Mason Mount may be back for Bayern but his opening two games suggested he was miscast in midfield. Evans came on against Arsenal and, while it was not entirely his fault, United soon conceded twice. Sergio Reguilon had a difficult debut against Brighton and could be sent out to face Bayern’s band of wingers. Andre Onana has passed the ball well but conceded 10 goals in his last four games. A patched-up, slipshod rearguard is the major cause but Raphael Varane is unlikely to feature on Wednesday; Luke Shaw definitely won’t.

An increasing liability is another of Ten Hag’s flagship signings, a second former Ajax player he pushed for. Lisandro Martinez has been lamentably poor this season; alongside him, Victor Lindelof has been substandard while Ten Hag’s reluctance to tell Harry Maguire to leave means the alternative is a player the fans have mocked and who he rarely trusts.

At the start of the season, the other major defensive issue came in an open midfield where Casemiro started to look isolated and immobile. On Saturday, after a change of shape to compensate for Antony’s absence, a diamond midfield left the full-backs exposed. Brighton capitalised. Bayern’s first team were famous for their wingers in Ten Hag’s day, in Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery. Now they possess other potent threats from the flanks. Now United have lost to the three best sides they have faced this season and head to one who hope Kane’s signing will make them the finest in Europe.

Ten Hag’s first return to Bayern was as an underdog who excelled, earning Ajax a draw, taking them to the Champions League semi-finals. United would surely settle for both of those outcomes. But for the success story from Bayern Munich II’s dugout, the fear may be that Bayern’s first team compound and capitalise on the problems at United.

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