Manchester United were thrashed 4-0 at Brentford to leave Erik ten Hag's side with zero points from first two games in charge; manager cancelled players' day off to put them through gruelling training session; sentiment in dressing room is United have become joke of transfer window
Tuesday 16 August 2022 06:15, UK
In the aftermath of the defeat to Brighton at Old Trafford on the opening day of Manchester United's campaign, Erik ten Hag was astounded by how psychologically drained his players were.
The manager had spent the entirety of pre-season instilling discipline and a tactical structure, while working on remedying the confidence and courage of the squad.
There had been a series of collective and individual talks where Ten Hag reminded players of their strengths, offered his backing and asked them to take responsibility for their story and not let it be defined by the past.
He has also done this publicly, sticking up for and sticking with Harry Maguire as captain, for example, and not slicing into a wavering Cristiano Ronaldo in the media.
Man Utd's 4-0 defeat at Brentford reiterated the arduous task facing Erik ten Hag. United are bottom of the Premier League, but is it too early to judge?
The first half against Graham Potter's men had not even reached the 10-minute mark when United started "bricking it." That description came from a chat between a player and his agent, where there was an admission that the team were unprepared for Brighton's direct approach and wilted amid the pressure of shedding last season's misery, plus serving a statement of a new era in front of the home crowd.
Damningly for United, Brentford mimicked Brighton's blueprint of going long, winning second balls, targeting Lisandro Martinez, and aggressively pressing Ten Hag's men into discomfort with greater success.
"We looked at what Brighton did well against them," Thomas Frank said. "Normally, Brighton always build from the goalkeeper, but they went long every single time so, of course, we looked at that. We knew we had that weapon, so that's why we did it."
That artillery was the not-so-secret Ivan Toney, even though United seemed stunned at his aerial prowess. "My qualities in the air is something we worked on," the striker said. "I'm obviously up against a smaller centre-back. It was a good game plan."
Perhaps the most piercing analysis came from Brentford defender Ben Mee, who pointed out that his side were prepared to highlight United's psychological strains. "We knew they would be a bit unsure from the weekend (defeat to Brighton) and maybe lack confidence.
"With the determination, pace and power we've got up front, pressing them, getting in their faces, they didn't enjoy it all. We made the most of it."
Ralf Rangnick had analysed eroding the mental blocks of the squad was paramount to improving performances and brought in sports psychologist Sascha Lense.
The interim manager's spell was miserable, but multiple sources have indicated it was not to do with the changes he tried to make or his findings about United's wider structural state of play, but the absence of buy-in from players and empowerment from the club.
Changing the psychology will be fundamental to Ten Hag minimising individual errors and erasing uncertainty around United. Goalkeeper David de Gea even admitted the club's disastrous 2021/22 campaign is "still in our minds" as "when something goes wrong, people get panicky."
Ten Hag's decision to scrub a day off and put the team through a gruelling training session may have underlined the law of not shirking effort and needing to do the shirt proud, but it will not help restore confidence.
The manager cannot escape the question of how his tactical plan was so easily undone by Brighton and Brentford in rinse-and-repeat fashion, but he is the solution to problems that United have yet to deal with.
The dithering in the transfer market has meant Martinez and Christian Eriksen, two players that have been particularly targeted by the opposition, were not on the pre-season tour and have yet to properly integrate at United.
That is beyond the embarrassment of how the Frenkie de Jong saga has been allowed to drag on and even a deal for Adrien Rabiot - who Juventus are desperate to be rid of - has not been closed yet due to personal terms.
United walked into yet another season without curing their need for stability, a progressive figure and a destroyer at the base of their midfield.
The desperate dive for Marko Arnautovic and quick withdrawal of any deal was not well received in the dressing room, where there is sentiment that United have become the joke of the transfer window.
No versatile forward and focal point has been signed to strengthen the attack.
When things are not right off the pitch, the signs will show on it. None of this absolves players from not being able to do the basics properly and turning in shocking performances. United are poor sellers on account of not maximising the best from expensively paid assets, greatly diminishing their value.
This has seen the club unable to shift players that should no longer be at Old Trafford and persist with ones that have proven incompatible for the pressure, expectation and style of football demanded.
There is concern that further imbalance will come under the current recruitment strategy of giving Ten Hag every player he identifies rather than working off a long-term scouting and analytics practice like Manchester City, Liverpool and the teams that have beaten them this season - Brentford and Brighton - do.
United have fallen into the habit of indulging managers instead of constructing a squad that feeds into a concrete identity, regardless of who is in the dugout. The vision needs to be in place first before the right figure for the helm is brought in.
By all accounts Ten Hag is an excellent coach, but he is not a sporting director nor chief scout and should not be running point on transfers. United have shown that there is still an absence of conviction, intelligence and structure behind the scenes.
Another huge difference between the pre-season tour and the current reality is the presence of Cristiano Ronaldo casting a shadow over everything.
Ten Hag dealt with his absence superbly, but the worries over a disruptive and individualist nature are now apparent. The forward's decision not to acknowledge United's travelling fans after defeat on Saturday has not gone down well with team-mates. There is also annoyance over how much he is indulged by the club.
The dressing room is still splintered, and while Ten Hag has shown his authority in a number of respects, sources have indicated they expected a stronger response to Ronaldo, Maguire's form and retention of the captaincy when there was no pressure to make a solid decision over it, and the general lack of cohesion.
One staffer has said a fit Anthony Martial would have painted a different picture for United's performances in the last two games, but it is staggering that the loss of one player could make such a catastrophic difference.
The club's attacking output and pressing may have been better for his presence over using Eriksen as a false nine or starting wantaway Ronaldo, but it would not have aided their offensive protection much.
The sense of renewal and assuredness of United's pre-season tour now feels a lifetime away. The warning when waxing lyrical about Ten Hag's positive signs then was that the real challenge is yet to come.
United, bottom of the table with a goal difference of minus five, are illustrating that in the bluntest of terms.
A mismatched, psychologically shot squad has met an unsophisticated transfer policy with a club that have not gone for the best in the business in football operations.
Ten Hag will be the one under pressure and at threat of losing his job as the 'new Frank de Boer' if such damaging results and performances continue, but he is merely the latest fresh face to walk into a festering mess.