Erik ten Hag may have inherited a sinking ship at Manchester United, but you cannot drill another hole and expect to remain dry amid the tidal wave of criticism. Here at Brentford, his side truly did plunge to new depths of gutless incompetence.
Two matches is too soon to judge a manager, of course, but you can form an opinion. On the evidence so far, the Dutchman looks like adding to the club’s myriad problems, as opposed to finding a solution.
He tried to influence his players during the first-half drinks break — by which point United trailed 2-0 — but their response was to concede another two within 10 minutes. They had taken plenty of water on board, but seemingly none of Ten Hag’s instruction.
Cristiano Ronaldo, detached at the back of the rabble in their bile-green jerseys, spent the interlude with a towel around his neck, but the metaphorical equivalent had long since been thrown. Ten Hag was lost, helpless in halting the surrender.
It is too easy, then, for pundits and former players, such as Gary Neville, to kick all of their annoyance towards the hierarchy. Yes, the Glazers are inept owners and this fractured incarnation of United is a consequence of their flawed decision-making.
But that does not give the manager a free pass. The Glazers are not responsible for organising and motivating the players, that is the job of Ten Hag. And, within the confines of successive 90 minutes now, his players have been disorganised and demotivated.
The fact he is only two games in is a reason for concern, not immunity from censure. Two games? The players should be running through a brick wall for a new manager, not hiding behind it.
Remember all of that nonsense from the summer about Ten Hag’s immediate impact? The players, we were told, were even turning up for training at 9am and some were staying until 5pm. Welcome to the real world, lads.
But already you detect a disconnect between the players and Ten Hag, who stood expressionless as they walked past him at full-time. There was zero interaction in either direction.
As the team bus waited, Ten Hag was not exactly keeping his players free from its wheels in the nearby media suite.
‘Rubbish’ he called them. He was not done, bucking managerial convention with an eye-opening, ‘The team has to take the responsibility’.
He later accepted some of the blame, but it is clear he believes many of the issues pre-date his arrival. While that does not excuse some of his tactical choices and a general feeling of unease around the 52-year-old’s suitability, he is also right. They are a sorry bunch and that much was evident in the hour after the game.
As Christian Eriksen sloped wearily from the dressing room towards the stadium exit, he declined the invitation to share his thoughts with the press. Tellingly, he did offer: ‘Not today. It was a terrible day.’ And this from a man who knows a thing or two about bad days.
In fact, not a single United player would take questions from the national media. At least Eriksen refused politely, unlike some, whose petulant grunts captured perfectly their absence of personality on the pitch.
A word on Eriksen, who was used as a false nine in the opening day defeat by Brighton and shunted into a false four here. False in the sense that he is not, and never will be, a deep-lying midfielder screening a defence. But it felt needless — naive, if we’re being kind — when Ten Hag substituted the former Brentford playmaker with three minutes to go, subjecting the Dane to the mockery of home supporters. ‘You should have stayed at a big club,’ they crowed.
Brentford fans, however, were the least of the visiting worries as they sought their escape from west London. Once, United stars would leave the stadium to a giddy chorus of worship. Not here. The selfie hunters had been elbowed out by angry punters. It was an unedifying scene.
‘F*** off, Fred, you’re s***,’ strained one crazed voice, inescapably Mancunian. ‘Maguire. Disgrace. Get out,’ yelled another.
Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho left together — it was the only time the forwards had been in tandem all day — and were immediately shot down by a cry of, ‘Not good enough’.
Bizarrely, one fan did tell Donny van de Beek that he ‘deserved better than this’. Really? The midfielder has done nothing to support that assertion. With the team sinking in the second half, Ten Hag turned to his former Ajax player from the bench. It felt like reaching for a life jacket and being handed a rubber duck.
In that sense, there is sympathy with the new boss given the hopeless recruitment of recent years, which shows no sign of change. It was interesting to note Brentford’s new signing Mikkel Damsgaard speak of his battle with arthritis before the game. Arthritis? That sounds like a pre-requisite in United’s search for timeworn strikers.
Meanwhile, post-match and back outside the stadium, the boos continued. Just yards away, a steel container of kit was waiting to be loaded on to the team bus. How appropriate it felt that a member of staff had dumped a bag over part of the motto adorning the top of it. ‘We are United’ was no more. ‘We are…’ it now read. Insert your own adjective here.
With all of the players having scrambled behind tinted- windowed sanctuary, United assistant coach Steve McClaren emerged with his arm around Brentford striker Ivan Toney. Maybe he was trying to take him back to Manchester. Goodness, they could do with him.
Toney broke away from the grinning McClaren — even on the darkest days he can make a Cheshire Cat look glum — and the frontman gave a revealing take on his side’s 4-0 win. ‘I am disappointed it was four,’ he began, no hint of bombast. ‘When you see a weak point, you go for the jugular and we did that. I feel like it could have been more in the end.’
The weak point — or rather, the weakest point, for there were plenty — was Lisandro Martinez. Yes, the 5ft 9in centre back who Ten Hag insisted follow him from Ajax this summer for what looks a crazily inflated £55million.
‘It is a compliment for me, him (Martinez) getting subbed off at half-time,’ said Toney. ‘Our quality in the air against a smaller centre back… it was a good game plan.’
As atrocious as United were, Thomas Frank’s Brentford were brilliant. They will have harder games than this — Fulham and Colchester are next — but they ran all over United, quite literally, during a first half which ranks as one of the most astonishing in Premier League history.
Josh Dasliva fired their opener. Correction — David de Gea let a saveable shot squirm through him. De Gea then played Eriksen a pass he did not want, but should have managed, from a short goal-kick and Mathias Jensen stole in to score the second.
Defender Ben Mee made it three, out-muscling Martinez on the goal-line, and Bryan Mbeumo slotted in the fourth, climaxing a devastating break which, many years ago, would have been straight out of a United playbook. Not any more. Indeed, it is difficult to determine what their current strategy actually is.
De Gea, in a separate interview, did reveal what Ten Hag had said at half-time. ‘Unacceptable, what we were doing on the pitch, nothing else to be honest,’ said the Spaniard. ‘It was horrible, then some tactical things. It was horrible from us.’
Horrible. Rubbish. Disgrace. The words of player, manager and supporter. United have Liverpool at Old Trafford next Monday. That sinking ship, you feel, is yet to reach the bed of its ocean.