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Will Man Utd’s Anfield curse strike again? Ten Hag has lost grip on reality

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What could be worse than last season’s 7-0 beat down? How about a routine, entirely predictable defeat in which the victor executes at walking pace, much like Bayern Munich’s saunter at Old Trafford on Tuesday.

That is the fate awaiting the husk of a vessel that is Manchester United at Liverpool, a fixture that ought to shimmer with global brand power, but on Sunday threatens to be little more than a training exercise.

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It was at Anfield five years ago that a prior dream ended with the sacking of Jose Mourinho after a 3-1 loss. Results, transfers, and style of play where the issues then as they are now, Erik ten Hag seemingly no nearer righting the listing tanker. Moreover, Ten Hag’s failings are starting to hit the bottom line, United’s Champions League exit at the group stage costing the club the best part of £30m in potential earnings.

The American owners, soon to be partnered by Britain’s richest man, Sir Jim Ratcliffe, are inured to losing matches, but not pound notes. The uncertainty surrounding Ratcliffe’s start date is arguably keeping Ten Hag in his post.

Be assured, however, the marginal gains monitor at Ratcliffe’s side, Sir Dave Brailsford, is good with numbers and will have computed the unsustainability of a coach losing half his 24 matches this season, a figure which will almost certainly rise to 13 on Sunday. Unlucky for some?

A thrashing is never helpful for a manager in distress. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was dumped two years ago after a 4-1 defeat at Watford. Replacing him with a temp, Ralf Rangnick, proved so spectacularly unsuccessful, the haunting memory of it is another factor working in Ten Hag’s favour, notwithstanding the lingering presence of Graham Potter.

This assumes that Ten Hag is culpable, of course. Such are the repeating patterns that have afflicted the six coaches to have followed Sir Alex Ferguson, it is clear there are fundamental issues to be addressed.

And, as arch critic Gary Neville never stops telling us, it hardly needs a full structural survey to identify them.

It is difficult to trust Ten Hag’s testimony since his grip on reality has been entirely loosened by the scale of the trauma.

He claimed United played well against Bayern, despite the away team dominating possession, having double the shots, almost double the number of touches in their opponent’s box and playing the entire match with the handbrake on.

Ten Hag spoke afterwards about the need to finish in the top-four to guarantee Champions League participation next season.

Apart from the unlikely prospect of such a thing, what would be the point if they cannot get past Galatasaray and FC Copenhagen in a doddle of a group?

Ratcliffe has identified recruitment as an area of acute concern. In the decade since they last won the title in 2013 United have provided a home for an entire team of outfield veterans at either ridiculous cost or crazy salaries.

Radamel Falcao, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Alexis Sanchez, Edinson Cavani, Odion Ighalo, Raphael Varane, Casemiro, Cristiano Ronaldo and Christian Eriksen were all offered as a solution of sorts but, bar the odd flicker of past eminence, none substantially moved the needle.

Yes Ten Hag has been unlucky with injuries. The loss of Harry Maguire at Anfield is almost cruel. His greater difficulties can be sourced to his failure in the transfer market.

The Anfield curse

  • Louis van Gaal – Sacked after 2016 FA Cup final, but had been on a downward spiral after a Europa League exit to Liverpool, losing 2-0 at Anfield.
  • Jose Mourinho – Sacked two days after a 3-1 defeat to Anfield in 2018.
  • Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – Sacked after a 4-1 thrashing at Watford. Had also been beaten 5-0 at Anfield less than a month before.
  • Ralf Rangnick – Did not stay on in a consultancy role as planned after his stint as interim boss. Beaten 4-0 by Liverpool in one of his final games of the season.
  • Erik ten Hag – Lost 7-0 at Anfield last season, Man Utd’s biggest defeat in history.

We can assume the sporting director appointed to lead the revolution, be it in vogue Dan Ashworth, presently in the employ of Newcastle, or another fancied runner, Paul Mitchell, ex-Monaco and Spurs, will not repeat the errors that brought Andre Onana, Mason Mount, Sofyan Amrabat and Rasmus Hojlund to Old Trafford in the summer, all of whom have yet to meet the required standard.

So much of the commentary around United is conditioned by a sense of what the club once was rather than what it has become during a decade of creeping decline. Impressions lag behind reality.

Even Bayern boss Thomas Tuchel was a victim of United’s past, fielding a strong team mindful of the historic setting and sense of occasion, Old Trafford under the lights on a Champions League night. In truth this is as much fantasy as the Christmas tableau, an imagined wonderland with the build strength of a Christmas cracker.

Under Ferguson, United reached four Champions League finals, three in four years towards the end of his reign, winning two. Since his departure they have reached the knockout phase just four times and progressed no further than the quarters. It is 20 years since Bayern, who they beat so memorably in the 1999 final in Barcelona, last failed to progress from the group stage. Moreover they have not lost a home group match since 2013. United lost twice this term.

Somehow they remain sixth in the Premier League. That could easily become ninth on Sunday should results go against them. Only the bottom three, plus struggling Crystal Palace and Nottingham Forest, have lost more matches. This is the telemetry of failure, not progress, as Ten Hag maintains.

The priority for Ratcliffe is to strip out the rotten elements from the top down. To build a back-office structure, a technical group that operates strategically according to clear objectives.

Only then can they set about improving a bang average team. Some wins are obvious. Anthony Martial is a clear red flag. For all the money paid, so too is Antony.

Victor Lindelof, Varane, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Diogo Dalot, Casemiro and Eriksen are either spent or not good enough. More controversially, perhaps, Scott McTominay should appear in the out tray.

His goals and industry cannot camouflage technical flaws that at 27 are not going away. He neither passes nor keeps the ball well enough to give United control in midfield.

On this season’s form Marcus Rashford is also under threat. At 26, with 379 games and 125 goals to his name, you would not want to rush to that conclusion. Against that, he is unrecognisable from the player who drove United into the top-four last season.

More worryingly still, there appears no obvious explanation. Severing ties with Rashford would be a radical move. It might also be symbolic, a ritual sacrifice signalling the end of bad United and the start of something new.


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