MANCHESTER, England (AP) — Manchester United fans waited patiently outside Old Trafford late into Tuesday evening.
Even after a latest loss in an ever-worsening season they wanted to see manager Erik ten Hag, hoping for an autograph or selfie with the Dutch coach.
And despite the Manchester rain, he worked his way along a line of supporters, posed for pictures and signed whatever paraphernalia was placed in front of him.
His team may have been greeted with boos as the final whistle blew on a dispiriting 3-2 loss to Galatasaray in the Champions League — a sixth defeat in 10 games this season — but there was no sign of blame being directed toward him from these fans.
Ten Hag clearly still has credit in the bank after his first year at United, when he led the club back into the Champions League and to a first trophy in six years, the English League Cup.
But his predecessors in the decade since United great Alex Ferguson retired could tell him just how quickly things can unravel at a storied club that still looks a long way from rekindling its former glories.
“Last season (was) brilliant really and more than we could expect,” Ten Hag said in response to questions about his position on Tuesday. “But also in this project we knew there would be gaps and in this moment we are in a very difficult period.”
Some might say United is in crisis after equaling its worst start since 1986, to leave the team nine points adrift of Premier League leader Manchester City and at the bottom of its Champions League group after back-to-back defeats.
Ten Hag says there are no excuses, but has offered little by way of explanation for United’s sudden slump in form.
Here’s a look at the problems on and off the field that have contributed to United’s disappointing campaign so far.
Key defenders Luke Shaw and Lisandro Martinez are out with long-term injuries, robbing Ten Hag of the left side of his defense. New signings Mason Mount and Rasmus Hojlund have also spent periods on the sidelines, along with Raphael Varane, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Sergio Reguilon. As a result, Ten Hag has been unable to field a consistent lineup, while absences in defense have been particularly disruptive at a time when the coach is trying to introduce a system of building up play from the back.
As if injuries haven’t been damaging enough, Ten Hag has also had to cope without three of his leading forwards for non-soccer reasons. United parted company with Mason Greenwood after a criminal investigation of possible attempted rape was closed by prosecutors. Antony was then given leave of absence to address allegations of domestic abuse, which he denies. The Brazil winger has now returned to the team, but Jadon Sancho is another forward who has been taken out of contention after being made to train alone over a disciplinary issue. He had claimed he had been made a scapegoat after being cut from the team earlier this season. Antony and Sancho cost a combined fee of almost $200 million and Greenwood was considered a generational talent when bursting into the team as a teenager. All could have added dynamism to United’s struggling attack.
Ten Hag is powerless to stop the type of costly errors his players made against Galatasaray when Diogo Dalot was easily outmuscled by Wilfried Zaha for one goal and Sofyan Amrabat wastefully gave the ball away in the buildup for Mauro Icardi’s winner. Andre Onana was also at fault as United conceded a late penalty in the latest blunder from the goalkeeper. His error also led to Bayern Munich’s opening goal in United’s 4-3 loss to the Germans. Onana has looked far from convincing since his move from Inter Milan in the offseason and he was fortunate not to concede a penalty on his debut against Wolverhampton at the start of the season. But he cannot be blamed for all of United’s problems, as was clear against Galatasaray.
After scoring a career-best 30 goals last season, Marcus Rashford has managed just one this campaign and looks short on confidence. That was evident when he ran through on goal against Galatasaray and opted to pass to Bruno Fernandes, rather than shoot. He underhit his pass and the chance was gone. There have been doubts in the past as to whether Rashford could develop into a consistent scorer for United and his form last season suggested Ten Hag had found a way to get the best out of him. He signed a new long-term contract in the offseason but has looked a shadow of himself this term in an attack that has lacked cutting edge.
The ongoing delay in a possible sale of the club has cast a shadow since United’s owners, the Glazer family, announced they were prepared to relinquish control last November. A sale was expected to be completed by the start of the transfer window and the thought of extra funding to shape his squad might have been on Ten Hag’s mind. With new owners he may have been able to lure Harry Kane to the club or rival Arsenal for Declan Rice. Instead infuriated fans continue to protest against the Glazers midway through games, while it is no clearer when or if a new owner will be in place. Qatari banker Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad Al Thani and British billionaire Jim Ratcliffe are both competing to buy out the Glazers and fans are growing increasingly impatient as the process drags on.
An impressive first season has bought Ten Hag time, while there is also an acceptance among fans the number of issues he’s had to contend with have affected results. His record of winning three Dutch league titles in four years at Ajax also identifies him as a proven winner. But he cannot say he has not been backed in the transfer market after spending big on Casemiro, Antony, Rasmus Hojlund, Mason Mount and Onana. The squad still needs improvement, but it is largely his team that has struggled so badly at the start of the season. It is up to him to turn things around.
James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson
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