Letting David de Gea face the post-match television grilling was the bravest thing Manchester United did at Brentford. Amid intense interrogation, De Gea accepted his part in the shambolic display but asked what he thought was the way out he said he didn’t know before stressing on the importance of hard work. A little later, Erik ten Hag, the only Manchester United manager to lose the first two games since 1921, said he would have changed all 11 players if he could.
Like Barcelona, Manchester United are struggling. Unlike Barcelona, they don’t have a plan. Trading their present for the future is Barcelona’s way of dealing with an entrenched debt crisis. At Manchester United, which interim coach Ralf Rangnick had said needed 10 new players and an ‘open heart surgery’, all Ten Hag could say is that the club would try and convince players to join. Bottom of the table after the 0-4 loss, their seventh successive away defeat equalling the club’s worst run in 1936, Ten Hag has 18 days before the summer window closes.
Brentford is just a bus stop in Hounslow, the world heard their fans sing in 2021-22. Self-deprecating humour is a survival tool when you aren’t good enough to be in the top tier for 74 years. On Saturday, one team got so disoriented on reaching the bus stop that by the time they figured out what to do, the bus had become a speck in the distance. Being a team they were kitted in the same shade of green but as Scott McTominay’s square pass to nowhere showed, either they didn’t know each other well or introductions had been perfunctory. Like passengers on a bus. Explains why Ten Hag spoke of the need to “stick together” and for the team to take responsibility.
De Gea must cop his share of the blame but it also must be pointed out that Cristiano Ronaldo had lost possession too easily leading to the first goal. Also, the match was only 10 minutes old when De Gea let slip Josh Dasilva’s shot and buried his face in the grass. It was 18 minutes on the clock when Mathias Jensen spoilt his plan to play out from the back. Distribution with feet isn’t among De Gea’s qualities but that he has still been Manchester United’s most consistent player over the past few seasons encapsulates the crisis at the club. Football has moved on since Pep Guardiola traded Joe Hart’s unquestionable shot-saving skills for Claudio Bravo’s ability with his feet –in Ederson Manchester City have such an adroit passer that from kick-off they often send the ball straight to the goalie–but Manchester United have not.
Ten Hag trying to get his team to eschew long balls and inculcate a more sophisticated way of playing too is in sync with the times. That is how Liverpool, Manchester City and all European elites, barring maybe Real Madrid, play. But Lisandro Martinez made a wrong decision in trying to do that, sucked Christian Eriksen into the error and it led to Jensen’s goal.
“We knew the high press would affect them,” Brentford’s Ivan Toney said in a pitchside interview to the official broadcasters. Brentford approached the game with all their energy; they ran 14km more (109.4km to 95.6km). So effete were Manchester United, so ineffective their pressing that Brentford didn’t need to in their first win against them since 1938.
In beating Arsenal in their opening game last term and holding Liverpool 3-3, Brentford had shown clever use of set-plays. That led to the third goal, Ben Mee heading home a knockback from the far post. Their excellence at counter-attacks too is well known but Manchester United were caught when the Bees swept from their box to De Gea’s in three passes before Bryan Mbuemo scored.
Rebuilding is arduous, and Ten Hag needs to look no farther than how Arsenal started last season. Like at Arsenal, anger against Manchester United’s owners continues and banners calling the Glazers to leave were seen at Brentford. Gary Neville took it one step forward. “When the business is failing it’s the owners of that business (who need to take responsibility),” the former Manchester United captain said on Sky Sports.
He didn’t stop at that. “We have got now a decrepit, rotting stadium that is, to be fair, second rate when it was the best stadium in the world 15-20 years ago. You have got a football project where they haven’t got a clue, you put bankers in charge of the football club… You can look at the players all you like but there are that many big things that need to be put right first…”
Neville said it was “baffling” that Ten Hag wasn’t given the players he wanted. While Manchester United have weeded out players, they have got only three new ones, Eriksen, Martinez and Tyrel Malacia, in. For months they have pursued Frenkie de Jong but it is Adrien Rabio who seems most likely to join. Trying for 33-year-old Marko Arnautovic and giving up after a backlash from fans because he may have used racist language is proof of desperation, not long-term vision.
Manchester United play Liverpool next. The gap between them is as yawning now as it was when Alex Ferguson took Manchester United to 13 Premier League titles, the most so far. They have been failing for 10 years, said Neville. “The club is rotting.”