Erik ten Hag is at the steering wheel of a directionless Manchester United

Erik ten Hag is eagerly wondering when Manchester United will establish a concrete and consistent strategy and a unique playing style.

The recent 3-0 loss to Manchester City at their home stadium on Sunday adds to the growing evidence that the Dutchman’s team is a jumbled mess. They display moments of aggressive pressing and smooth passing, but also struggle with holding onto the ball, passivity, inconsistent defending, and rely heavily on quick counterattacks.

After seventeen months and three periods for player transfers, this is an unexpected occurrence. To understand what can be achieved in a comparable (or even shorter) amount of time, one can observe the Midlands or the southern coast. In Birmingham, Unai Emery has brought Aston Villa to fifth place, surpassing United by seven points. His team exhibits a distinct style of aggressive, proactive football.

At Brighton, Roberto De Zerbi is using dizzying geometric angles to confuse opponents, making them the closest replica of Pep Guardiola’s City. This is the ultimate compliment for any manager.

Emery and De Zerbi have held their positions for 12 and 13 months, respectively. However, their budgets are significantly lower compared to Ten Hag’s, who has been given a total investment of £385.4m.

Ten Hag has control over a vital aspect in shaping his team’s performance on the field: player recruitment. At United, the manager and football department hold the power to reject any potential signing, which means Ten Hag and John Murtough, the football director, must reach a consensus for any new addition to the team.

After Ten Hag became the manager in May 2022, the team has acquired several players, including Tyrell Malacia for £15.7m, Lisandro Martínez for £56.7m, Casemiro for £52m, Antony for £85.6m, Christian Eriksen on a free transfer, Martin Dubravka, Wout Weghorst, Jack Butland, and Marcel Sabitzer on loan deals. They have also purchased Mason Mount for £55m, André Onana for £44.1m, Rasmus Højlund for £72m, and Jonny Evans on a free transfer. Additionally, Altay Bayindir was acquired for £4.3m and Sofyan Amrabat and Sergio Reguilón were brought in on loan deals.

The veto system used by United ensures that Ten Hag has not been pressured to make changes, making it fair for him to be accountable for the formation and style of play of his team.

Gary Neville’s recent argument is flawed. In the Sky Sports analysis of the defeat at Old Trafford, the ex-defender placed all the blame on the club’s “toxicity” for Manchester United’s struggles. He questioned whether we should continue to hold the students accountable or if we should instead point fingers at the headteacher, symbolizing the owners.

The behind-the-scenes management of the club is just as chaotic as the public face. The Glazer family has burdened Manchester United with nearly £1 billion in debt, causing much anger and disapproval from fans. The ongoing negotiations for a potential sale of the club by the American owners has dragged on for almost a year, marked by delays, indecision, and now, the anticipated purchase of a 25% stake by Sir Jim Ratcliffe for an exaggerated price of £1.3 billion in exchange for control over football decisions.

Jonny Evans remonstrates with Harry Maguire.

If this investment happens, it appears to be another foolish move. The main question is: how will it be shown? Is it possible for the Glazers, with Joel as their unofficial leader, to relinquish control to a minority owner when football decisions directly impact their profitable commercial income? There doesn’t seem to be a definite answer, highlighting the potential issues with the new arrangement.

When we examine the way United is managed compared to the top-notch operation at City, led by chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak and executives Ferran Soriano (chief executive) and Txiki Begiristain (sporting director), we can see a distinct difference in expert leadership at the Etihad Stadium. This is exactly what Guardiola mentioned after his team’s victory in the 191st derby on Sunday.

“We are all aligned, including the chairman, CEO, sport director, manager, and players,” he stated. “Whether we are right or wrong, we move forward together. While we may make mistakes, we do not point fingers when we lose or encounter challenges. Instead, we focus on what we can do to improve.”

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“We discovered a resolution. In the initial season, we were unsuccessful and my chairman never expressed dissatisfaction. He stood by me wholeheartedly. Even after our defeat in the Champions League final against Chelsea in May 2021, my chairman remained encouraging and motivated us to keep pushing forward and aim for victory.”

The team trusts me and I trust them, creating a balanced dynamic. This means that we don’t get too excited when we win or too upset when we lose. We understand that it’s just a game and focus on improving. We congratulate our opponents and keep trying. This is why our club is so consistent.

United fans would love their manager to speak similarly but, instead, they watch aghast at a seemingly never-ending muddle. Ratcliffe’s arrival would not only likely make matters more convoluted but may threaten the positions of Murtough, Richard Arnold, the chief executive, and Ten Hag.

It is rumored that Ratcliffe sees United as a profitable entity, but one that falters when investing in the team. It is not difficult to notice this, and the issue for Ten Hag is that even after spending nearly £400 million on players, United still lacks a clear style of play – which does not bode well for his future.

What did Ten Hag say after losing to City? He told Viaplay, “The players you have determine how you will play. We will never be able to play the same football we played at Ajax here.”

At least, there is coherence here. When asked about his vision for Manchester United, Ten Hag responded by saying, “Perhaps you have witnessed Ajax’s style of play? I admire that. However, it ultimately depends on the abilities of the players to dictate the approach.”

The issue at hand is as follows: why did Ten Hag not choose to sign players who can effectively play in his preferred style when acquiring 16 footballers? As a result, United appears to still lack a clear strategy.