Erik ten Hag chose not to walk over to the travelling Manchester United fans tucked into the corner of Brentford‘s Gtech Community Stadium after what had been a humiliating afternoon in west London, but if he had, he would have been spared much of the anger that spilled out onto the pitch following the 4-0 defeat.
Virtually everyone else at the club — the players, the owners, the recruitment department, CEO Richard Arnold, football director John Murtough — has taken the bulk of the criticism following a start to the season that has left United bottom of the Premier League after two games. Ten Hag, though, has been largely insulated.
Most supporters are well aware the problems at Old Trafford run far deeper than a manager who has only been at the club for a couple of months. But if results continue in the same vein, it will be the Dutchman whose pays the price. After defeats to Brighton and Brentford, he has already been made third-favourite to be the first Premier League manager to be sacked this season behind Ralph Hasenhuttl (Southampton) and Frank Lampard (Everton).
United maintain that Ten Hag is a long-term appointment, but there will have to be signs of progress soon. Club chiefs have been impressed with the 52-year-old’s approach off the pitch, but so far, his record on it reads two games and two defeats with Liverpool up next on Monday.
Ten Hag has made it clear to both Arnold and Murtough that if he’s to turn things around, he needs new players before the transfer deadline on Sep. 1. Sources have told ESPN that the club are “aligned” with his demand for more signings, but with two weeks to go before the close of the window, the clock is ticking.
Ten Hag wants to sign Frenkie de Jong from Barcelona, while a deal for Juventus midfielder Adrien Rabiot has collapsed over the Frenchman’s wage demands. Ideally, he wants at least one more forward — Christian Pulisic is the latest player linked to a move, albeit on loan — another goalkeeper and a right-back as well, but he accepts the chances of having all his requests met before the end of the window are slim.
There’s a sense from Ten Hag’s side that the club, so far, are not fulfilling their side of the bargain in terms of making changes to a squad that underperformed so miserably last season. But during conversations leading up to his appointment, it was made clear he would have to get more out of the existing players and there are concerns — small at this stage, though growing after that 4-0 defeat at Brentford — that it’s not happening.
Both Ten Hag and the players accept they are also having to cope with the hangover from last season as well as learning about the demands of a new manager and a new style of play, but there’s no getting away from the fact that many inside Old Trafford expected a far better start. While the opening day defeat to Brighton was brushed off as teething problems, the manner of the collapse at Brentford — a team assembled for a fraction of the cost of United’s and enjoying only their second-ever season in the Premier League — has caused minor panic.
There is no suggestion that the board are doubting their decision to pick Ten Hag over Mauricio Pochettino, who has Premier League experience with Southampton and Tottenham, they expect a significant response against Liverpool.
One of Ten Hag’s key decisions before meeting Jurgen Klopp’s team — and there are plenty — is whether to stick with Lisandro Martinez. At £56.7 million, Martinez has been United’s most significant summer signing and one with Ten Hag’s fingerprints all over it after the pair worked together at Ajax. But after shipping four goals in 35 minutes at Brentford, Martinez was replaced at half-time and afterwards, Thomas Frank suggested both he and Brighton counterpart Graham Potter targeted the Argentinian because of a perceived lack of height.
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“We knew we’d more likely either win it or the second ball around it,” said Frank. “Of course we looked at what Brighton did well against them, and Brighton are also like us in the way they want to play.
“Normally Brighton always build from the goalkeeper, but they went long every single time, so of course we looked at that. We knew we had that weapon, so that’s why we did it.”
Sources have told ESPN that Ten Hag does not believe Martinez played that badly against Brentford, but Frank’s statement is damning. It is too early to judge a new signing still adapting to a new league, but if Martinez’s problems continue, it will call Ten Hag’s judgement into question, particularly after he put himself at the centre of this summer’s recruitment drive. For example there have already been questions, from inside and outside the dressing room, about his decision to pick Christian Eriksen as a false No. 9 against Brighton, why he hasn’t spotted that David de Gea struggles to pass out from the back, and why he was so quick to reinstall Harry Maguire as captain after it became such a contentious issue last season.
Sources have told ESPN that Ten Hag spent much of his interview with Arnold and Murtough detailing the problems at Old Trafford and the start to the season has only served to show how deeply they run.
No one, not least Ten Hag, was expecting an easy campaign, but then no one was expecting United to be bottom of the league after two games either. It seems absurd that Ten Hag, after only a matter of weeks in charge, could be under such scrutiny despite being parachuted into a situation not of his making, but many fans would argue that the club has long since descended into farce.
A home game against Liverpool — themselves enduring a difficult start to the season, with a litany of injuries, draws against Fulham and Crystal Palace and Darwin Nunez facing a suspension for his red card on Monday — offers a chance to build some much-needed momentum in a big game and ease the pressure on the new manager. On the other hand, another bad result and Ten Hag might not find himself absolved of blame for much longer.