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Ten Hag chases shadows of past glories

The Dutchman is just the latest Manchester United manager to struggle to shake off the ghost of Alex Ferguson

Harry Maguire looks dejected during United’s 4-0 humiliation at Brentford. Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Change always seems to catch Manchester United on the wrong foot, requiring long and painful adaptation.

After Sir Matt Busby rebuilt the club from rubble following the second world war, and then the Munich air crash, into European dominance over a quarter of a century, it took a turnover of five British managers to find a man
capable of restoring the glory.

And after a quarter of a century of Sir Alex Ferguson we are now into the sixth attempt by hired foreign coaches to try to recapture a semblance of
what United feels it has the right to be in the global game.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!

Erik ten Hag’s command of English may not equal Frank O’Farrell’s, but I remember as if it were yesterday sharing a meal with O’Farrell over which the loquacious, sincere Irishman confessed he felt imprisoned by the living ghost of Busby still occupying an office at Old Trafford.

Poor, earnest Frank. He subsequently tried management at Cardiff, Iran, Torquay and Al-Shaab in the Emirates before retreating to work for a Catholic organisation, The Society of St Vincent de Paul. Beware, ten Hag, what the future holds!

The Dutchman, like his City neighbour Pep Guardiola, a disciple of Johan Cruyff, has possibly tried too fast to convert United into the Total Futbol that, even now with all the freedom to change players to suit his model, has not yet brought his new local rivals the European Cup/ Champions League trophy that Busby and Ferguson achieved.

There is such claptrap around sport these days. Football is infected by the American culture for statistics and pseudo-science to explain and maintain all things. The game has not changed that much, as Carlo Ancelotti keeps reminding us when he makes do with what the Real Madrid president provides, regardless of the failure to sign Kylian Mbappé this summer.

One wonders why the Glazer family, those bloodsuckers who own Man Utd,
never tried to lure the most proven man-manager in the game while Ancelotti was working beneath his means down the East Lancs Road at Everton?

Had such a senior manager been appointed, that ultimate sulk Cristiano
Ronaldo would have been pensioned off in the same way that his overtures
towards his former club Madrid were met by the brusque suggestion to look
at his birth certificate. Going on 38, even greatness wanes in a physical game.

And there’s the nub of what ten Hag battles with. He knowingly inherited
the American family that sits in Florida and drains the club of profitability while recklessly turning over managers and allowing each to hire players who barely have time to form a cohesive unit on or off the pitch.

We don’t know if ten Hag, a great success in Amsterdam where the club turns youth into fine footballers to sell at profit, is any more likely to meld the miscreant talents at Old Trafford into anything like the sum of their transfer fees. The Premier League still has that physicality that most of Europe – and certainly the Netherlands – could neither emulate, nor wish to.

So ten Hag brings from Ajax his favourite defender, the Argentine Lisandro Martínez. Industrious and intelligent Martínez may be, but last Saturday his height of 1.75m – barely 5ft 9in – was nowhere near a match for Ivan Toney, the Brentford forward who uses every centimetre of his 1.85m to bully and outpace any defender not capable of matching his physicality.

Toney, of Nigerian descent, is a throwback to ye olde England. But, after two games, the studio experts condemn ten Hag for trying to persuade David de Gea to be the type of goalkeeper that Guardiola buys for City – a playmaker keeper using his feet to begin the possession style of football.

Moreover, ten Hag persuades Christian Eriksen, who he coached as a youth at Ajax, to forego his strengths as a midfield creator and become a so-called “false No 9” on week one, then a defender in front of the back four the next. So Brentford stormed United’s confused rearguard, and scored four times.

A glance through the records shows that every manager hired and fired to
fill the boots of Ferguson has suffered a four-goal hiding. Yes, David Moyes,
Louis van Gaal, José Mourinho, Ole Gunnar Solskjær, Ralf Rangnick and now ten Hag all “succeeded” in getting hammerings that were unthinkable to the old United.

And then, come Sunday morning, ten Hag reverts to that old managerial psychology of showing the players who is boss. He called United’s display
at Brentford rubbish, punishable by forfeiting their Sunday of rest and
reportedly being made to run 13.8km in near-90-degree heat.

That was the distance United allowed themselves to be outrun by Brentford. And notwithstanding a Californian online “physiotherapist, movement, strength and mindfulness” expert opining online that this could put United’s superstars into “the red zone”, making them vulnerable to injury.

This Santa Clarita Valley expert claims to have his finger on the pulse of what Rafa Nadal needs to cure his foot problems, or how Zlatan Ibrahimović could reduce his time out following Achilles tendon surgery. We can imagine how Fergie might have replied to such advice from over the Atlantic, but equally the current squad might well have preferred a 13.8km run to the hairdryer treatment that would have followed anything like the spineless start to the new season were Sir Alex still in charge.

United are a shadow of the club he ran and that Busby created. Their teams would never have allowed themselves to be outrun, outwilled, outfought in such a gutless way.

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