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Manchester United face a familiar choice: Throw out the bad apples or sack another manager

Erik ten Hag (right) talks with Marcus Rashford - Manchester United face a choice: Throw out the bad apples or sack another manager
Erik ten Hag (right) has rejected claims that some of his players have lost faith in his management - Getty Images/Oli Scarff

They say death and taxes are the only two certainties in life but a winter crisis at Manchester United seems to have been a staple for years now.

It was around this time a decade ago that David Moyes lost back-to-back home games against Everton and Newcastle and never really recovered.

His successor, Louis van Gaal, survived his own winter of discontent two years later, when United did not win a match for six weeks during the busiest period of the season, but was gone by the May.

Van Gaal’s replacement, José Mourinho, was sacked a week before Christmas 2018 and the man who filled the Portuguese’s shoes, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, was shown the door in late November 2021. Tis not the season to be jolly at Old Trafford.

Now United’s latest managerial incumbent, Erik ten Hag, is trying to weather his own storm and the script feels painfully familiar, with the Dutchman battling reports of dressing room unrest as the defeats stack up and the scrutiny intensifies ahead of an ominous run of games against Chelsea, Bournemouth, Bayern Munich and Liverpool.

As with all of his predecessors, there are legitimate concerns about Ten Hag. He has been allowed to spend a lot of money, often of his choosing, some of his team selections and substitutions are baffling and, after 19 months at the helm, has yet to establish a discernible, cohesive playing identity and continues to watch his team concede an alarming number of goals, with no obvious plan as to how to stop it.

By contrast, the likes of Ange Postecoglou, Roberto De Zerbi and Unai Emery have imposed clear visions at Tottenham, Brighton and Aston Villa in much less time and on a fraction of the budget.

Saturday’s insipid 1-0 defeat at Newcastle felt like the low mark of a torrid season, and that is saying something.

Equally, United have a big question to ask themselves if results and performances take another turn for the worse in the weeks ahead, starting against Chelsea at Old Trafford on Wednesday night.

Do they stick resolutely by a manager who was brought in with the specific – and essential – task of trying to overhaul the rotten culture that had been allowed to take root since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013? Or do they abandon their longer-term strategy and find themselves back at square and in the same old rinse and repeat cycle (have your say below)?

Sir Jim Ratcliffe, who is expected to be given control of football operations once his £1.3 billion purchase of a 25 per cent stake in the club is confirmed, possibly next week, will doubtless have his own views and is already readying changes to recruitment.

But even if the Ineos billionaire was to have his doubts about Ten Hag, he must ask himself if another managerial change is in United’s best interests when the players have routinely failed whoever has been in charge.

Listening to Nemanja Matic, who only left the club 18 months ago, discussing the rank indiscipline he encountered during his five years at Old Trafford, was to be reminded of the challenges Ten Hag inherited, and is still struggling to fix. Players were late for training “almost every day” according to Matic, with Jadon Sancho and Paul Pogba the worst offenders, and the lack of professionalism compared to his time at Chelsea, where he won two Premier League titles, was stark. In one season alone, the internal disciplinary committee he chaired in a forlorn effort to raise standards raked in £75,000 in player fines.

Jadon Sancho controls the ball during a training session - Manchester United face a familiar choice: Throw out the bad apples or sack another manager
Jadon Sancho cuts an isolated figure at Manchester United after his public bust-up with manager Erik ten Hag - Getty Images/Ash Donelon

Pogba was released in the summer Ten Hag arrived but Sancho remains at the club, at least in name. The England forward has been banished from the first team squad for the past three months after effectively accusing his manager of lying over the reasons for his absence against Arsenal in early September.

This is the sort of drastic action Ten Hag feels he has needed to take to try to restore order but indiscipline can take many forms and, to judge by that sorry showing on Tyneside at the weekend, the Dutchman’s message is still not getting through.

Ten Hag suggested that a clash during the game with Anthony Martial was an isolated incident and not a pattern of behaviour but Mourinho and Solskjaer’s interim replacement, Ralf Rangnick, who both had troubles with the France striker, might argue otherwise. Elsewhere, Marcus Rashford’s appalling body language and repeat failures to track back was excruciating to witness and felt indicative of the malaise that is spreading.

Ten Hag has railed at suggestions of a dressing room revolt and insists the players are behind him. “If we stick together, stick to the plan and the strategy, we will get where we want to be,” the Dutchman said in a call-to-arms that could easily have been addressed to those above, as well as the squad.

But how many of those players are realistically going to get United to where they want to be? Are some even capable of implementing or obeying the instructions given to them? Not all are bad eggs, not all have bad attitudes by any stretch. But some are just not good enough, physically, mentally, tactically or in quality terms, at least not for a team with designs on winning the Premier League and Champions League.

And yet United persist with them, year after year, the repeated calls for a ruthless cull of the kind administered to great success by Arsenal, never materialising.

It is little wonder there have been so many miserable winters.

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