How bad is it at Man Utd?
And how easily can they turn things around?
Stats are from FBRef unless stated otherwise.
What does the manager do at Manchester United? Has anyone known for the last ten years?
It used to be straightforward. Sir Alex Ferguson would have complete control and make all the sporting decisions. But what he didn’t do told us just as much. He never took the training sessions. If you turned up to United’s Carrington training ground on a Friday morning in 2010, you would find René Meulensteen and Mike Phelan taking care of the day’s session while Ferguson sat and watched from afar. This video from way back in 1993 goes viral every now and again for the very low-tech way that Ferguson found out about the Champions League draw. But look at what’s happening around him. Training is taking place, and he’s totally delegated it to his assistants.
That was the job of a British manager at a “big” club. Most European languages’ words for football manager – "entrenador” in Spanish, “entraîneur” in French, “allenatore” in Italian, “fußballtrainer” in German – literally translate to “trainer”. And we’re not talking about shoes. Managers are defined by how they work with and train the players. Not on these shores. Before the turn of the millennium, managers weren’t even discussed in terms of style of play and ideas about football. In his brief time managing Valencia, Gary Neville said he was stumped by how many Spanish journalists asked him “what’s your idea?” It wasn’t how British football thought about managers. It certainly wasn’t how Man Utd thought about managers.
Erik ten Hag definitely has an idea. The Dutch term for football manager is, fitting with its European peers, “voetbaltrainer” (pronounced “football trainer”). Ten Hag wants to be teaching the players his ideas about football every day in training. United want him to be Ferguson. If this is going to work out, everyone needs to clearly define what it is Ten Hag is supposed to be doing and, more importantly, what he’s not supposed to be doing.
United have enough people above his head to take leadership here. Chief Executive Richard Arnold and Football Director John Murtough should provide a clear structure above Ten Hag’s head. But I’m not sure these people really understand how the club should function. Arnold comes from telecommunications, with United the only football club he’s worked at since starting there in 2008. Murtough spent the majority of his pre-United career at Everton, moving to Old Trafford with David Moyes. He seems highly regarded and that’s all well and good, but he always worked within a conventional British model where the manager has absolute control. It’s impossible to say which from the outside, but either Murtough isn’t being empowered by Arnold to make transfer decisions, or he’s not taking the responsibility himself.
Whatever the cause, it’s created a vacuum that Ten Hag is filling. When managers make the transfer decisions themselves as a side gig, they tend to rely on personal relationships and agent connections, which is what seems to be happening here. Ten Hag’s agent Kees Vos and his employer Sports Entertainment Group have reportedly become very involved in recruitment and sales at the club. Ferguson had 26 years to build up a recruiting network that helped him get the players he needed. No modern manager can do that, so Ten Hag has to rely on his agent. I don’t think another manager would necessarily do this any better. It’s a structural issue.
It’s arguably the same story with off-field issues, though I’m far from convinced most other Premier League clubs would handle high-profile assault accusations any better than United. But there was definitely a lack of leadership and direction from the top. I don’t know if a better structure would’ve made different choices, but it felt chaotic in a way that can’t help.
It’s not like all other clubs get the structure right by default. Even Brighton, the poster boys for how to run a Premier League side, have been wrong in the past. Back in 2019, I criticised Brighton for disjointed recruitment, as the club signed players suited to a high-pressing system while manager Chris Hughton wanted to defend deep. Brighton were ruthless after that, sacking Hughton not because he had done a poor job (he did exactly what he was hired to do), but because he didn’t fit into the structure they wanted to implement. I’m not suggesting Man Utd should sack Ten Hag. I’m merely saying they have to make sure the structure is understood and aligns properly from the top down.
But those are all questions for the medium-to-long term. Right now, what matters is how much Ten Hag can get out of the squad they currently have. United were a good team last season, but they did probably punch above their weight. They finished third, but their expected goal difference put them as the sixth-best side in England, behind Newcastle, Brighton and Liverpool. That’s a marked improvement on the previous year, where they barely looked better than league average, so Ten Hag does deserve some credit. But this should’ve been regarded as a team that did well to finish in the top four, not one that’s only a few pieces away from a title challenge. Ludicrous claims from certain pundits during last season claiming they could finished second ahead of Arsenal were far beyond the reality.
The past month and change might have woken everyone up to this team’s weaknesses. United have played some tough games, but this has still been worse than expected, and the data models are noticing. Spread betting (where you bet on points totals over a season, rather than individual games) company Sporting Index projected Man Utd to pick up about 73 points on average before the season started. After five league games, that’s down to around 66 points. Some of that is just the points already dropped, but I doubt all of it will be. Even when we adjust for the quality of opponents, Michael Caley of the Double Pivot podcast estimated with his model that United have played like a below-average side so far. Scott Willis of Arsenal newsletter Cannon Stats had his model put United’s top four chances at 31% at this point. That’s significantly more generous than Opta Analyst, who put the figure at 5.3%! I don’t know how Opta’s model is built, so take that one with a big pinch of salt. United are in for a fight. They could need to rely on the backdoor of English teams earning a fifth Champions League spot this season.
Five league games and one Champions League match is not a lot. Man Utd have played poorly, but that doesn’t mean they’ll keep doing so. Even if it hasn’t been perfectly constructed, this squad still has plenty of talent, and Ten Hag was doing a decent job of putting fundamentals in place last season. How can they shake themselves out of this slump? Let’s break down the side and try to figure it out.
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