Results got David Moyes sacked at Manchester United almost a decade ago but it was the eyes that had long since given the game away. When you looked at Moyes – on a touchline, in a press conference, on TV interviews – you could see doubt, uncertainty and anxiety staring back.
Moyes was a good manager before that time in his life and has become one once again. But the United job can do that to you. It can undress you, dismantle you and pick you slowly to pieces from the inside. It happened to Moyes and it may well be happening to Erik ten Hag right now.
United’s regression under Ten Hag has been startling this season. His players look like they are riding an elevator with the cables cut. Plunging down to the darkness.
Against Manchester City on Sunday they were bad. We expected that. On Wednesday against Newcastle’s second team in the Carabao Cup they were so wretched I drove home asking myself if I had witnessed anything quite like it in the decade that has followed Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013.
I remember Moyes watching a shoot-out in the same competition against Sunderland at Old Trafford from a position standing behind his unused players and staff on the touchline. It was as if he couldn’t bring himself to watch. United lost.
Manchester United's regression under Erik ten Hag this season has been startling
I remember Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s rabble at Watford. He left the post in tears the very next day
I remember endless humiliations for men like Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho against Liverpool and City. I remember Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s rabble at Watford. He left the post in tears the very next day.
But there was something almost uniquely feeble and cack-handed about Ten Hag’s United on Wednesday – something so complicit and reeking of self-harm – that it may well have been the worst and if the club’s Dutch manager does not find something within himself to change things soon then he will be sacked. There is no doubt about that.
At all clubs there comes a point where absolutely anything or anyone is better than the man in charge and at Old Trafford that point may well arrive at a speed that simply would not have seemed possible even one month ago.
I make no apologies for turning tail on this issue. I have previously been resolute in my support of Ten Hag, citing last season’s progress on the field and indeed the decisiveness shown in handling Cristiano Ronaldo and Jadon Sancho with clarity and certainty. But things have changed fast.
Ten Hag looked like a rag being tossed in a storm on Wednesday night and his post-match offerings were no more convincing or believable than had been his team’s football.
But there was something almost uniquely feeble and cack-handed about Ten Hag’s United as they were dumped out of the Carabao Cup by Eddie Howe's (right) Newcastle on Wednesday
Ten Hag should stay for now. Categorically, he must. He deserves the opportunity to get something approaching his first team on the field. Let us judge him properly when players like Lisandro Martinez, Luke Shaw and Rafael Varane are fit, ready and able.
But let’s also allow ourselves to look hypothetically into a future in which Ten Hag has gone and ask ourselves this question: Who on earth would wish to come in his stead? And why?
It’s hard to believe I am thinking this, never mind writing it, but Manchester United is now a football club that comes with a health warning. Not just to players but to managers.
The playing squad is not good enough and, given the age of some, is getting worse. The ownership is a mess. The Glazers don’t care about the football while Jim Ratcliffe’s incoming INEOS group will attempt to take control of the football on the back of a 25 per cent shareholding. Good luck with that.
I supported Ten Hag as he showed decisiveness in handling Cristiano Ronaldo (left) and Jadon Sancho (right) with clarity and certainty
But things have changed. Ten Hag looked like a rag being tossed in a storm on Wednesday
Ten Hag isn't the only issue. The ownership is a mess. The Glazers don’t care about the football
The stadium is creaking and leaking while the standard of teams above and around United continues to elevate. Yet against this background and in this context any manager of United will still be expected to win the Premier League and play attractive football.
It’s as close to an impossible job as any in elite sport right now. It is a challenge that simply cannot be met. United remain years away from being competitive at the very top of the English and European game. So who apart from the desperate or the purely financially motivated would come?
Nobody in football is free from the risk of reputational damage and that is all that United offer a manager right now. Everyone who has come near the place since Ferguson has left with a huge stain on his CV and things are arguably worse – more unstable, more toxic – now than they have ever been.
It is a quite extraordinary state of affairs and one that was summed up quite concisely and quite brutally at the weekend by Arsene Wenger.
Nobody in football knows what a good United team looks like more than Wenger. He suffered at the hands of enough of them in the second half of his reign at Arsenal.
The United job undresses you, dismantles you and picks you to pieces. It's happened before and it looks like it's happening again under Ten Hag
And this is what he said last weekend. ‘I feel sorry for United because there is no hope there in the team. I don’t see where they can improve. This team has lost confidence, quality and spirit.’
Each of these words will have been felt like a dagger by those who hold United close to their hearts. Sympathy from Arsene Wenger. What next? A bunch of flowers from Jurgen Klopp?
But this is what Old Trafford has become. A pity palace. No manager in his right mind would come anywhere near it.
Drinkwater peels back football's ugly curtain
Buried within the endless stream of self-pity that constituted much of Jake Humphrey’s unmissable interview with Danny Drinkwater on the High Performance podcast was a sentence that told us much about the deep-rooted misogyny that lives and breathes in football dressing rooms.
‘I was going out drinking and getting hold of any bird that I could,’ said Drinkwater of his difficult time at Chelsea.
English football likes to tell itself it has changed and in some ways it has. But here in Drinkwater’s caveman use of language was a small peek behind the curtain.
It’s ugly isn’t it?
Rice boo boys should feel silly
Tribalism is part of football. It’s important. But so is respect and gratitude and understanding.
With that in mind, those West Ham fans who booed Declan Rice when he returned with Arsenal on Wednesday should think about where he came from, what he contributed and how much money he brought them when he left.
And then they should just feel a little bit silly.
West Ham fans who booed Declan Rice on Wednesday should think about where he came from
Plucky Port Vale gives us hope
Back in the day I worked as a news reporter in Stoke-on Trent and used to go and watch the football at Port Vale.
I was there with 18,600 others in September 1994 when ‘the Vale’ hosted Manchester United in the Coca-Cola Cup. United had a couple of young lads making their first starts for the club. They were called Beckham and Scholes. I probably should have kept the programme.
Vale lost that one but travelled upwards for a while under the clever management of John Rudge. They played good football on a big pitch. The Wembley of the North they called it, which was probably a stretch.
Anyway, Vale have struggled for a good many years now but here they are about to have their moment back in the sunshine. They will host Middlesbrough in the last eight of the Carabao Cup and if the League One club can win that then who knows what will await them in the semi-final.
League One's Port Vale will host Middlesbrough in the last eight of the Carabao Cup
They say this competition doesn’t matter. They say nobody cares. Yet the Newcastle players taking selfies at Old Trafford on Wednesday care. So do the West Ham fans who bounced out of the London Stadium after beating Arsenal.
So here’s to Port Vale and here’s to what I still call the League Cup. The big clubs will get us all in the end. They will squeeze this competition until it dies.
But while it still has life, it will give us stories of hope and rejuvenation. Middlesbrough’s Michael Carrick will doubtless not relish his December assignment in the Potteries but he would have loved to have played on that pitch…
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