Meltdown at Man United: The mood is worse than during the last days of Mourinho, 'rock bottom' is a fond memory and nobody knows what the plan is - plus, how Erik ten Hag infuriated one big-name star

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When Sir Alex Ferguson finally decided to retire, the search for his Manchester United successor was straightforward. Ferguson just picked up the phone and told David Moyes to get round to his house in Cheshire.

'It was as simple as that,' recalls Moyes, whose biggest concern when he broke off a shopping trip with his wife Pamela in the spring of 2013 was that he would be meeting Ferguson dressed in a pair of jeans. 'He offered me the job and that was it. I never got a chance to say, "no" or, "by the way, what about this or that?".'

Ferguson trusted his instincts, just as he did with so many of his players. It didn't work out, though seventh place and a Champions League quarter-final exit at the hands of Bayern Munich doesn't seem as bad now as it did then.

More than a decade on and six managers later, the decision-making process on any managerial change will be more thorough under Sir Jim Ratcliffe.

Rigour is so important to Ratcliffe's ethos that it's one of three words in the title of a book celebrating 25 years of his company Ineos. Dictionary definition: the quality of being detailed, careful and complete.

The mood at Manchester United is low, with minority owner Sir Jim Ratcliffe (pictured) having work to do to sort out the issues

The mood at Manchester United is low, with minority owner Sir Jim Ratcliffe (pictured) having work to do to sort out the issues

The mood at Manchester United is low, with minority owner Sir Jim Ratcliffe (pictured) having work to do to sort out the issues

The future of manager Erik ten Hag is unclear, though a decision is not expected before the end of the season

The future of manager Erik ten Hag is unclear, though a decision is not expected before the end of the season

No manager has yet come close to emulating the success Sir Alex Ferguson (pictured) had as United manager

No manager has yet come close to emulating the success Sir Alex Ferguson (pictured) had as United manager

Or, as Ratcliffe likes to say, the opposite of winging it. Moyes was The Chosen One. When he was sacked, United went for an elder statesman in Louis van Gaal, then lurched down the Hollywood route with Jose Mourinho.

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Next up were Old Trafford legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and interim boss Ralf Rangnick before the club turned to Erik ten Hag. None have come close to emulating Ferguson.

It has taken a no-nonsense businessman such as Ratcliffe to look beyond the coaching cull and ask if, just maybe, the structure they have been working under is not the best.

Ratcliffe is not known for mucking around. Those with knowledge of the bidding process chuckle at the image of Sir Jim, arms folded, unimpressed, asking all the tough questions that the Qataris, led by Sheikh Jassim, were too polite to ask when it was Ratcliffe's turn to sit through United's presentation.

What has happened since his £1.3billion investment in the club, they say, is straight out of the Ineos playbook.

The best way to show you mean business is by making changes. Omar Berrada is the new chief executive, Dan Ashworth the new sporting director and Jason Wilcox the new technical director. Ineos CEO Jean-Claude Blanc is filling in for Berrada until he can start work on July 13, and Ashworth's arrival will also be delayed while he takes Newcastle to arbitration, but it would be wrong to think both men aren't already heavily in the loop.

Ratcliffe's right-hand man Sir Dave Brailsford has been his eyes and ears at the club since the turn of the year and, more recently, Wilcox has been scrutinising the entire operation.

Now Ratcliffe and his new leadership team are weighing up arguably the most significant change of all.

Ratcliffe is a no-nonsense businessman and is already making changes behind the scenes

Ratcliffe is a no-nonsense businessman and is already making changes behind the scenes

The most significant decision of all, however, is on the future of the manager, who has struggled in his second season in charge

The most significant decision of all, however, is on the future of the manager, who has struggled in his second season in charge

A new owner taking over is rarely good news for a manager and the same could apply for Ten Hag this summer

A new owner taking over is rarely good news for a manager and the same could apply for Ten Hag this summer

A new owner — or in Ratcliffe's case, a very powerful minority owner — taking over is rarely good news for a manager. For Ten Hag, it could hardly have come at a worse time as United go into meltdown.

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The decision will be made by Ratcliffe and his gang of five, and sources at both United and Ineos maintain they don't expect one before the end of the season. It's hard to see Ten Hag surviving beyond then, though.

After the uplifting FA Cup quarter-final win over Liverpool in March, it was felt he could still be the man to lead United under a new set-up. 'Beat Coventry in the semis and have a strong finish in the league and the situation looks very positive,' one insider said at the time.

United did beat Coventry, but in the most cack-handed way possible, and their league form has disintegrated.

Ten Hag's side stumbled to a win over Sheffield United and draws with Bournemouth and Burnley, before having their pants pulled down in a 4-0 defeat at Crystal Palace on Monday that had an eerie echo of Solskjaer's last stand at Watford, a 4-1 loss.

The next three games are against title contenders Arsenal at Old Trafford on Sunday, top-six rivals Newcastle at home on Wednesday, and Brighton away on the last day of the season.

United may have to settle for Europa Conference League football at best. And to think, former Old Trafford chief Ed Woodward kept a photo of the scoreboard after Moyes' team lost a Champions League last-16 match 2-0 at Olympiacos in 2014, thinking that was rock bottom.

Ten Hag's ignominy is unlikely to end there. What's shaping up to be his farewell game is the FA Cup final against Manchester City on May 25. Some bookies have City at 2-7 to win.

It is appearing more unlikely as the weeks go by that the Dutchman will be in charge at Old Trafford next season

It is appearing more unlikely as the weeks go by that the Dutchman will be in charge at Old Trafford next season

What are the odds like of Ten Hag making it to a third season? Considerably longer than they were a few weeks ago, even if he somehow lifts the Cup. Just ask Van Gaal, who was sacked after winning at Wembley in 2016.

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Asked on Friday if a repeat of that scenario concerns him, Ten Hag said he believes the owners are sensible enough to realise he has had to contend with a chronic injury crisis for much of the season, particularly in defence.

'No, I think they have common sense,' he said, having revealed left back Luke Shaw has suffered a setback in his recovery from a hamstring injury.

'They have seen when you have 32 different back lines, when you lose eight centre backs, when we see we don't have a left back, they know that will have a negative impact on results.

'I am a realistic person. I see this, I analyse and no team will perform with these injuries. But we are still fighting and it's a huge FA Cup final.'

Would a vote of confidence from the owners help end speculation over his future?

'You have to make this question to the owners, not to me,' Ten Hag replied. 'I don't care if they do or they don't. I'm working on improving and developing my team, that is my job here.'

Just about the only thing in Ten Hag's favour right now is the lack of an obvious replacement.

Gareth Southgate has been touted as a potential option to take charge

Graham Potter, who is out of work, is also a name that has been mentioned

Gareth Southgate (left) and Graham Potter (right) have been touted as potential options to take charge

Thomas Tuchel, meanwhile, has enjoyed success, but there are known to be concerns over his character

Thomas Tuchel, meanwhile, has enjoyed success, but there are known to be concerns over his character

Ineos are looking for a man who can work in synergy with the new set-up — a cog in the machine, as it were, albeit a significant one. Ironically, go back two years and the kind of manager they want might well have been Ten Hag, a progressive coach who had built a vibrant young team at Ajax.

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In that sense, Gareth Southgate and Graham Potter, both well known to Ineos, would be a better fit at United than, say, Thomas Tuchel. Potter is out of work but Southgate is tied up with England until after the Euros this summer. The same goes for Germany boss Julian Nagelsmann.

The tournament ends on July 14, one day before United play their first pre-season game in Norway against Rosenborg, but ideally the new manager would be in place from the start of July.

Tuchel remains an intriguing option, a coach who won the Champions League with Chelsea in 2021 and went agonisingly close to taking Bayern Munich to the final this season before losing to Real Madrid on Wednesday.

United could get him without paying compensation, but there are known to be concerns over his character. Tuchel fell out with senior figures at Bayern, as well as key players such as Thomas Muller and Joshua Kimmich, before it was announced in February he would he would leave at the end of the season. 'You could tell it wasn't going to work even before he arrived,' a source in Germany tells Mail Sport.

Still, top European coaches don't come along every day, and it's no secret Tuchel would jump at the chance to manage United.

Otherwise, the talent pool is relatively shallow for a job of this magnitude, and a number of clubs will be in the market for a new coach in the summer. So the net widens. Roberto De Zerbi, Zinedine Zidane, Ruben Amorim, Thomas Frank, Andoni Iraola…

The reality is Ten Hag could have put forward a strong argument to keep his job had United's season not fallen apart. Who knows, maybe he still can.

Another scenario mentioned in the corridors of power at United is Ten Hag quitting. Some feel that if he knew he would have to work with Brailsford and Wilcox looking over his shoulder, and were faced with the knowledge he would be operating with a diminished powerbase and restricted budget, he may choose to walk.

Ajax have made clear they would welcome Ten Hag back if it doesn't mean paying compensation. He has been linked as a replacement for Tuchel at Bayern too, though that one is more difficult to comprehend. Given how the tide has turned at United, though, who could blame him?

Tuchel remains the favourite to take over should Ten Hag leave, though the pool of potential options is shallow

Tuchel remains the favourite to take over should Ten Hag leave, though the pool of potential options is shallow

Ten Hag would potentially have had a strong argument to keep his job had United's season not fallen apart

Ten Hag would potentially have had a strong argument to keep his job had United's season not fallen apart

Second season struggles

When we first spoke to Ten Hag at length in Melbourne in the summer of 2022, the new United boss was already being dogged by questions over Cristiano Ronaldo's absence from the club's pre-season tour.

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By the time he was able to speak at length again, at a mid-season training camp outside Cadiz in December of that year, Ronaldo had been driven out of the club in the wake of his TV interview with Piers Morgan.

Ten Hag had established his authority and was on the way to a decent first season that included winning the Carabao Cup and finishing third in the Premier League. Despite losing his first two games to Brighton and Brentford, suffering a 7-0 humiliation at Liverpool and being beaten in the FA Cup final by City, he had exceeded expectations.

Which makes what has happened in his second season all the more baffling. Ten Hag was meant to be the man with a plan. Yet the longer he spends in the job, the harder it is to see an identity in this United team.

'It's really incomprehensible what is happening now,' says Ferguson's former first-team coach Rene Meulensteen.

'As a new manager, you always have to deal with a squad you have not put together yourself. So it takes a few transfer windows before you get the players you want. I always say a new manager needs 18 months to get it right. But there is no playing style, club culture or philosophy.'

Ten Hag talks about sticking to the plan but no one seems to know what it is — least of all his players. That said, the manager's intransigence over the plan has also become the problem.

Every opponent knows that a combination of Ten Hag's high press and low block leaves a vacuum in midfield. United's goal is being peppered. They have conceded 81 goals in all competitions this season, the most in nearly half a century, resulting in a club-record 13 Premier League defeats and a goal difference of minus three.

Ten Hag established authority in his first season in Manchester, but things have gone downhill since

Ten Hag established authority in his first season in Manchester, but things have gone downhill since

Ferguson's former first-team coach Rene Meulensteen said of United that there is 'no playing style, club culture or philosophy'

Ferguson's former first-team coach Rene Meulensteen said of United that there is 'no playing style, club culture or philosophy'

Yes, he has been crippled by injuries — more than 60 cases and rising after Mason Mount was yesterday ruled out of the Arsenal game — but that too has raised questions over the manager and his methods.

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There have been concerns over the intensity of training, but Ten Hag is not for turning. It doesn't help that his No 2 Mitchell van der Gaag can be equally as blunt, or the fact Lisandro Martinez — a key ally in the dressing room as well as his best defender — has been missing for most of the season through injury.

'Perhaps it's because Erik is Dutch, but there isn't much empathy,' says one insider. 'He can be his own worst enemy.'

In the Netherlands, they wondered how his approach to man-management would go down at United when it came to handling star players. There have been high-profile fall-outs with Ronaldo and Jadon Sancho, as well as spats with Anthony Martial and Raphael Varane.

Then there is Marcus Rashford. Ten Hag is said to have felt deeply let down by the £315,000-a-week star's dramatic loss of form long before he had to discipline Rashford over his infamous tequila bender in Belfast.

Alejandro Garnacho was another player reprimanded, after the forward 'liked' criticism of Ten Hag on social media.

This is what happens when players sense a manager is heading for the chop. At United there has been a feeling for some time that Ten Hag is on borrowed time, which in itself is undermining his authority. The mood at Carrington is said to have sunk as low as at any time in the final days under Mourinho and Solskjaer. That's hardly surprising given the problems that have beset United and Ten Hag this season.

The Red Devils have conceded 81 goals in all competitions this season, their most in nearly half a century

The Red Devils have conceded 81 goals in all competitions this season, their most in nearly half a century

Besides the injuries and disciplinary issues, he has had to cope with distractions such as Ratcliffe's investment, the Mason Greenwood saga and off-field allegations against Antony.

When the time comes to write Ten Hag's obituary as United manager, the Brazil winger should warrant a special mention.

It feels as if that time is nigh, but maybe not. Maybe Ineos will decide he deserves the chance to work under a new structure. There are still many fans who would like to see the Dutchman given that opportunity.

Ten Hag is a good man who can't have become a bad coach overnight. Whether he remains the right man for United is the big question now.

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