Shirt weighs heavy on fragile Manchester United

The question being asked in the wake of this loss was whether it marked a low point for United. Given that Liverpool are next up, the answer is almost certainly not
Shirt weighs heavy on fragile Manchester United

POINTING THE FINGER: Manchester United’s Bruno Fernandez and new signing Christian Eriksen share an exchange during the 4-0 Premier League loss to Brentford. Pic: Shaun Botterill/Getty

Premier League: Brentford 4 Manchester United 0

While Thomas Frank led his Brentford players in a raucous lap of honour, the inquest had already begun in the visitors’ dressing room.

Just two games into his reign as Manchester United manager, Erik ten Hag is already facing a crisis. If the previous weekend’s home defeat to Brighton had confirmed there would be no new manager bounce at Old Trafford, Saturday’s humiliation suggested the club’s plight is likely to get significantly worse before it gets better.

The question being asked in the wake of this loss was whether it marked a low point for United. Given that Liverpool are next up, the answer is almost certainly not.

The flaws and weaknesses that eventually undermined the club’s efforts to secure a top four place last season were as visible as they have ever been. Ten Hag’s side capitulated during a disastrous first half in which they shipped four goals in an astonishing 35 minutes.

Ten Hag’s immediate assessment was that individual mistakes had presented Brentford with the opportunity to take control of the game and a lack of belief among his own players then prevented his side from staging a meaningful response.

It was hard to argue with the manager’s view, although the manner of this defeat, a seventh successive away defeat including results at the end of last season, confirmed the problems run deep. It also highlighted the fact the former Ajax manager is on a learning curve as he confronts the different challenge of the Premier League.

Unable to handle Brentford’s determined, high press, United played themselves into trouble during the first half, lacking the ability to impose their approach on opponents who, alarmingly from ten Hag’s point of view, demonstrated more hunger and determination. Nor had United the nous to adapt to the demands of the game. 

There was no legislating for David de Gea’s failure to prevent Josh Dasilva’s 10th-minute shot squirming through his hands for the opening goal, but errors beforehand had allowed Brentford to create the opening. The keeper was again badly at fault for the second when his short pass played Christian Eriksen into trouble, leading to Mathias Jensen’s 18th-minute strike.

It seemed, however, as though the visitors were poorly prepared for the challenge posed by a physical Brentford side who exposed United’s lack of aerial presence when Ben Mee made it three in the 30th minute. Bryan Mbeumo’s well-taken fourth after a sweeping counter-attack confirmed the yawning gap between the two teams.

Lisandro Martinez, signed for £47 million from Ajax, appeared shell-shocked before being replaced at half-time and will have to improve considerably if he is to make up for his lack of physical presence and assert himself as a Premier League defender. He was far from the only player to appear out of his depth, though.

The United shirt, even this lime version, has weighed heavy on too many of these United players for too long. There is an alarming lack of direction and leadership within the side and Ralf Rangnick’s assertion that the squad needs “open-heart surgery” rings as true now as it did when the former interim manager presented his damning assessment during the final months of last season.

The approach to the summer transfer window has appeared to lack strategy while the long-term pursuit of Barcelona’s Frankie de Jong threatens to heap embarrassment on the club if they fail to land their man by the end of this month. Ten Hag restated the need to bring in more new faces but the opening two weeks of the season will have done little to convince players a move to Old Trafford can be a pathway to success.

For now, Ten Hag must work with what he has and within the club’s existing ownership and organisation. There is no quick fix to off-field problems, but the Dutchman must deliver results on the pitch quickly.

De Gea’s admission that there is a fragility to the team was alarming, as was his lack of a clear answer when asked how things can be turned around.

“We are not like teams who concede one goal but then win 5-1, 6-1,” said the keeper. “This is why I think I cost today three points. It was an easy save, and it was 1-0 for them, and I feel already that it was going down, down and down. Of course we have to react much better. It was a poor performance.” 

Ten Hag was similarly blunt. “We are as a team in a difficult process,” he said. “Of course you expect a different start. It’s not what we expected. It seems like what happened in the past and last season, we bring into the new season and we have to change that quickly. I think we need new quality players and we are doing everything to bring them here.” 

BRENTFORD (3-5-2): Raya 6; Roerslev 7, Jansson 7, Mee 8; Hickey 7 (Sorensen 80, 6), Dasilva 8 (Janelt 61, 6), Norgaard 8 (Onyeka 80, 6), Jensen 9 (Baptiste 74, 6), Henry 7; Mbeumo 8 (Wissa 74, 6), Toney 8.

Subs not used: Strakosha, Ghoddos, Lewis-Potter, Damsgaard.

MANCHESTER UNITED (4-3-3): De Gea 3; Dalot 4, Maguire 4, Martinez 3 (Varane 46, 6), Shaw 4 (Malacia 46, 6); Eriksen 4 (van de Beek 87, 6), Fred 5 (McTominay 46, 6), Fernandes 5; Sancho 4 (Elanga 60, 5), Ronaldo 6, Rashford 4.

Subs not used: Heaton, Wan-Bissaka, Garner, Garnacho.

Referee: Stuart Attwell 6  

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