Even FA Cup Success is Unlikely to Save Eric ten Hag

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After 114 games as Manchester United manager, Eric ten Hag’s win percentage (57.89) is comparable to that of Sir Alex Ferguson (59.67 from 1500 games) and Jose Mourinho (58.33 from 144 matches). It’s significantly better than that of Sir Matt Busby (50.48 from 1141 games), Ron Atkinson and Tommy Docherty.

Busby made United a football name second only to Real Madrid. Ferguson is the most successful British manager ever. Docherty and Atkinson may not have won the league, but are still revered by older supporters for having scripted moments to savour after the dark days of relegation in the early 1970s.

Ten Hag? Many don’t even call him by his name. He is simply the ‘bald fraud’ to them. You’d think a manager who took them to third place – ahead of Liverpool, Chelsea and Spurs – and League Cup success in his first season in charge would enjoy significant backing from the fan base. But despite leading United to a second successive FA Cup final – they will face Manchester City again at Wembley in May – ten Hag appears to be a dead man walking with Sir Jim Ratcliffe and his team, now having taken charge of football operations.

That simmering discontent can be traced to the league table. Last season, United finished 14 points behind City, but their points tally of 75 was better than when they had finished second in 2020-21. In fact, since Ferguson left in the summer of 2013, only once – under Mourinho in 2017-18 (81 points) – have United enjoyed a better campaign.

But instead of building on that, the team have gone backwards. They have already lost 12 times this season in the league, and lie a whopping 16 points behind Aston Villa in fourth, albeit with two games in hand. No side in the top ten has scored less than their 47 goals, and the goal difference is a pathetic -1. While their three biggest rivals – City, Liverpool and Arsenal – contest a thrilling title race, United are not even a dot in the rear-view mirror.

Then, there is the nature of the performances. After the penalty shootout escape against Coventry City in the FA Cup semi-final, Roy Keane – captain of Ferguson’s greatest sides – was withering in his assessment, saying “Coventry looked like the Premier League team, and United looked like the Championship side.” And after Harry Maguire had spoken of the players showing ‘character’ to prevail, Keane mocked the thought and pointed instead to the dismal game-management that allowed Coventry to come back from 0-3 down. But for the closest of VAR calls, maybe the width of a toe-nail, it would have been an all-sky-blue final.

The Champions League campaign ended in the group stage, with United finishing last in a group that included Bayern Munich, FC Copenhagen and Galatasaray. Domestically, it’s not just City and Liverpool that have left United behind. Arsenal’s steady progress under Mikel Arteta has provoked envy, as has Spurs’ revival under Ange Postecoglou. Villa have looked a top side under Unai Emery, and even Chelsea are showing signs of finally getting it together under Mauricio Pochettino.

These are all managers who have put their stylistic imprint on their teams. What is ten Hag’s style? No one really knows. If it’s to counterattack, then the defence is nowhere near robust enough. In two games against Liverpool (a dramatic 4-3 win in the FA Cup, and a 2-2 draw in the league, United faced more than 50 shots. Only Liverpool spurning two handfuls worth of gilt-edged chances prevented them leaving Old Trafford with two wins.

This pattern isn’t just visible against Liverpool and other top teams either. Three weeks ago, unfancied Brentford bullied United from start to finish. The 1-1 draw that United ultimately escaped with was one of the most unfair scorelines of the season. So rampant were Brentford that more than a few United fans switched off early in embarrassment.

It is this lack of playing identity that looks set to cost ten Hag the job in summer. A new face isn’t going to make United a title contender. After all, that has been proved beyond every United manager since Ferguson. But what Ratcliffe and the new hierarchy seem determined to see are shoots of progress – of a coherent playing philosophy that will eventually bridge the yawning gap to City.

Ten Hag, who came within minutes of leading Ajax to a Champions League final in 2018-19, was supposed to have been that man. Instead, he looks set to be the latest victim of a toxic culture that has eaten away at the club from top to bottom.

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