It all went wrong for Erik ten Hag and Manchester United from the first kick in a 4-0 loss to Brentford in a trip to Gtech Community Stadium Saturday. David De Gea's mistakes were on full display as within 30 minutes, Josh Dasilva, Mathias Jensen, and Ben Mee all found the back of the net before Bryan Mbeumo put things further out of sight before the first half ended. Ten Hag responded wit a triple change with Luke Shaw, Fred and new signing Lisandro Martinez all getting hooked. Scott McTominay, Raphel Varane, and Tyrell Malacia would replace them but it wouldn't change the result.
Chants of, "Christian, Christian, What's the score" rang out around the stadium as Brentford fans were quite pleased with their former player's struggles at United as their Bees dominated. While some of United's predicament, they currently sit at the bottom of the table, can be placed on recruitment and the players, most of the direct responsibility for Saturday's embarrassment has to rest with ten Hag.
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Brentford manager Thomas Frank. knew that United wanted to play out of the back and instead of ten Hag adjusting after De Gea missed one save and created another goal for the wrong team with a bad pass to Eriksen, he stuck to his plan when it wasn't working. Just like during United's opening week loss to Brighton, Brentford were all over things from the first kick with a coordinated press that created chaos. While playing Eriksen as a defensive midfielder may be something that would work with Ajax, ten Hag is getting quite an introduction to the more physical life of the Premier League.
The game is faster, ten Hag no longer has the better players and he was outdueled by Frank. With each goal conceded, Cristiano Ronaldo got more and more frustrated, seemingly feeling his legacy being tarnished with each day that he spends with Manchester United. And names like Adrien Rabiot and Alvaro Morata won't be able to improve United's fortunes at this stage. Growing pains are to be expected with a new manager, but this feels like ten Hag is trying to force his style onto the team instead of finding a system that works for them.
It's a stark contrast to Frank's fluid setup with Brentford. They can flit between multiple formations and even ahead 4-0 at the drink break after 60 minutes, Thomas Frank had his tactics board out, coaching the team to ensure that they didn't get complacent. At a certain point, ten Hag could enter the company held by another Dutch manager, Frank de Boer, who set a Premier League record by losing their first five matches to open the season. United has already scored a goal so they won't suffer as badly as that Crystal Palace side which was held scoreless over that stretch, but if they come close, ten Hag could be gone as quickly as he arrived.
Manchester United's disaster by the numbers
Manchester United had the lion's share of possession, but they weren't able to break down Brentford's back three. Both teams had a similar amount of shots with United taking 15 compared to Brentford's 13 but eight of United's shots were speculative efforts from outside of the box. This is in comparison to Brentford working the ball into the box from counters and set plays to ensure that they had good chances. Scoring with four of their seven shots on target, the Bees were quite clinical punishing Manchester United for their mistakes.
Ivan Toney was excellent at orchestrating play, creating four chances and assisting two Brentford goals. He was more creative than anyone else on the pitch using his vision to keep the ball moving for Brentford, allowing other players to attack the box while he acted as a focal point. Being able to flit between scoring a brace and assisting goals is an invaluable skill that makes Toney indispensable to Brentford.
What went wrong for Erik ten Hag?
When asked if the team played how he asked, ten Hag said "No, I asked them to play with belief and to take responsibility for the performance and that's what we didn't do"
While it's a simple answer, it shows just how much is ahead for ten Hag. Heads dropped after De Gea conceded the opening goal and no one showed fight to get back into the match. It's a demonstration of just how fragile this Manchester United team is. After years of disappointment and subpar results, ten Hag won't be able to change things overnight, but he'll also need to figure out which players will respond to his instructions sooner rather than later. If it means a lineup of academy players, well it can't really be worst than Saturday's results. If that's what it takes as a new manager to not reward players that are not playing to their instructions, then that's what it takes.
But, it's also a two-way street. Ten Hag needs to ensure that his instructions suit the players and against Brentford, they didn't do so. Instituting a no culture at Manchester United means holding himself accountable for things like playing Christian Eriksen as a center forward one game and as a defensive midfielder in the next. Eriksen is versatile but he's also an attacking midfielder who supports play and creates the attack for others. Misusing players like that is doing a disservice to them and to the rest of the team.
While things were better in the second half, this is not a team that can play the ball from out of the back. It put too much pressure on Lisandro Martinez but also exposed another issue with United's new recruit. Martinez is at his best at being able to pass, step up and intercept the ball. He was dominated in the air before being withdrawn at the half for Varane who showed improvement. If United aren't going to build from the back, it may be best to try Martinez at the six because none of the other players available are good enough for the role. Moving forward would allow Martinez to have more support from physical players while also allowing United to push forward and link up play with Fernandes and Eriksen.
In goal, De Gea's form is quite worrying. Dean Henderson could've helped prevent the first two goals but broken promises from previous managers and the front office made him push for an exit to Nottingham Forest. While it's a complicated situation, could things be different if the team committed to Henderson by finding a buyer for De Gea during the summer? Probably, but now they're stuck with a keeper who is an above average shot stopper but can't build from the back as ten Hag looks to make square pegs fit into round holes
Ronaldo's body language isn't what the team needs
United has a polarizing presence atop the line in Ronaldo. While they don't have a better option to lead the attack, Ronaldo's body language makes a fragile team break with ease. The game is about Ronaldo and not about Manchester United. While he is correct to be disappointed in the lack of ambition by the team as he wants to build on scoring 18 goals last season, this isn't the way to do it. Yelling at players and showing clear displeasure when he knows that the camera is always following him after announcing he wants to leave the team only brings unnecessary pressure.
If Ronaldo is only going to play along when he's getting good service and the ball is flying into the box like the second half then he needs to leave before the end of the transfer market. Growing pains come with new management and everyone from Ronaldo down needs to be on board with those or ten Hag's job only becomes harder. Without that happening, United could be using the World Cup break to search for a new manager.
It could get worse before it gets better for Manchester United
Things won't get easier with Liverpool entering what will be an uneasy Old Trafford. Manchester United were already booed off the pitch at halftime of their home opener to Brighton and getting behind against a heated rival in Liverpool could see the same happen. It's concerning as this team doesn't look anywhere near strong enough to match the Reds, but losing the first three games of his Manchester United tenure would be a nightmare start for ten Hag before going into yet another away match. He's already the first manager since John Chapman in 1921 to lose his first two matches.