The Manchester United team showed up for practice on Wednesday morning and immediately got to work on the tactical scheme that manager Erik ten Hag had developed for the weekend trip to Brentford. Ten Hag announced two significant lineup changes after his team’s debut game under his leadership, a 2-1 loss to Brighton at home the previous Sunday.
After only being on the bench against Brighton, the aging superstar Cristiano Ronaldo was reinstated to the starting lineup. This allowed for the second change, which saw new signing Christian Eriksen end his brief, perplexing stint as a false nine and instead play much deeper as a defensive midfielder.
As a result, two places were changed, but only midfielder Scott McTominay was dropped from the team that lost at Old Trafford.
Only 10 of the line-positions up’s were known to the players at the time the tactical plan was given out on Wednesday. It wasn’t until the next day that Ten Hag decided that club captain Harry Maguire, not World Cup champion Raphael Varane, would be Lisandro Martinez’s partner.
In summary, United focused on their strategy to defeat one of the few Premier League teams they beat both at home and away last season for three entire days.
The fact that United fell behind 4-0 in just 35 minutes with a performance that their underwhelming goalkeeper David de Gea afterwards referred to as “awful” and “unacceptable” was rather extraordinary.
The 11-year club veteran and 45-cap Spain international insisted on speaking to broadcasters and the media after the game to apologize profusely. He accepted responsibility for the first two goals scored by Brentford.
Ten Hag, on the other hand, saw Saturday’s humiliation to be a group offense. He claimed that the United performance supported his assessment from the previous week that he had “a heck of a job” on his hands after leaving perennial Dutch champions Ajax in the summer.
In a post-game press conference, he acknowledged: “Brentford were more hungrier for one, and two, we let goals due to individual errors. You can have a solid plan, yet you end up discarding it.
He has earlier called his team’s performance on one international network “rubbish.”
The aftershocks started on Saturday night there in west London and culminated in a postponed day off for the players, a new frenzy surrounding Ronaldo’s future, fresh concerns about the cohesiveness of the dressing room, and increased pressure on the team going into the final two weeks of the summer transfer market.
At halftime and again at the end of the game, Ten Hag expressed his concerns to the players before notifying them that yesterday’s scheduled day off had been canceled.
Instead, the team was instructed to return to the club’s Carrington training facility at 9am on Sunday, where Ten Hag’s retaliation resumed. The squad eventually made it back to their home in the Manchester region at 11pm after traveling up from London.
Statistics that revealed United’s players covered 95.6 km in the game, compared to 109.4 km for Brentford, embarrassed the coaching staff. In order to make up for the 13.8km gap between the aggregate distances of the two teams, Ten Hag’s staff organized a session that was entirely a running session. This required every player, even those who did not start on Saturday, to run as close to that distance as possible.
A sports scientist with experience working at rival Premier League clubs described the hard-line approach as outdated and said it is unusual to put players through such a rigorous workout the morning after a late afternoon match, despite the fact that many fans who are unhappy with the application of their players may applaud it.
It is known that a few players were excused due to the way injuries are handled. United sources maintain that their medical and sports science department would not sanction any practice that presented a high danger of injury.
When the game was supposed to start on Saturday at 5:30 p.m., United’s players had arrived in temperatures that reached 34°C. Even though it barely reached the mid-20s in the morning, yesterday was another warm day in Manchester.
Ten Hag undoubtedly wanted to send a clear message to his team that it is possible to lose while wearing the United colors and that he will not tolerate it if his players are outworked by underdog rivals like Brentford, who finished 13th in their first season in the Premier League last year.
According to sources close to the new United manager, these early disappointments have only strengthened his resolve, and he will challenge the players to get better. Following the running session, Ten Hag held multiple meetings at Carrington where he expressed his thoughts to his team.
For Ten Hag, the rubble of Saturday’s devastation required further unpacking and he sat down with his inner circle of assistants to ruminate on the best way forward.
Foremost among Ten Hag’s current concerns is the situation around Ronaldo, who missed United’s pre-season tour to Thailand and Australia due to a “family issue”.
Reports emerged to say the 37-year-old forward wished to leave a club he only rejoined last summer after 12 years playing in Spain and Italy due to fears United are unable to meet his ambitions outside of the Champions League — they will play in the Europa League this season after finishing sixth in May — and the sluggish pace of their work in the summer transfer market.
Ronaldo, however, is yet to receive a serious proposal from a Champions League-qualified club, despite attempts by his representatives to seduce Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Napoli, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona.
Ten Hag, meanwhile, initially wanted United to dig in and keep one of the game’s greatest ever players on their books. He took the view that even at such an age, Ronaldo remains a world-class goalscorer they could not afford to lose — he led United with 24 all-competitions goals last season, 14 clear of their next most prolific player.
Ten Hag preferred to devote the bulk of his transfer kitty to reinforcing their defence with the £47million ($57m) signing of Martinez from previous employers Ajax and the £14.4million signing of full-back Tyrell Malacia from Dutch rivals Feyenoord. The club also still have an agreement worth up to £71.9million in place with Barcelona for their Netherlands international ex-Ajax midfielder Frenkie de Jong, if they can persuade the player to reunite with Ten Hag in England.
Yet since returning from United’s tour, which saw good performances and a strong unity develop among the travelling group, Ronaldo’s reintegration into the squad has proven challenging.
The Athletic has been told of days when he eats lunch alone in the canteen at Carrington, and he has been seen flapping his arms about in training and attempting to argue against the high-pressing approach favoured by the new manager. The club and Ronaldo’s representatives were approached for comment.
Several sources close to United, who wished not to be named to protect their business relationships, argued that Ronaldo has been afforded greater leeway than his peers and indulged beyond the contribution he is providing to the club.
United are still to receive any formal interest for Ronaldo but it is now thought Ten Hag would be open to allowing the 189-cap Portugal captain to leave — as long as United recruit in the forward position, where they are painfully short of options.
One ray of light, however, is that striker Anthony Martial, who has missed the opening two matches of the season with a hamstring injury, is now back training with the first team.
As United continue to scour the market for options up front, Atletico Madrid’s Spain international Alvaro Morata, 29, has been presented as an option. They are also considering a move for Jamie Vardy, but Leicester are reluctant to let the 36-year-old former England striker go. United have been linked with Espanyol’s Raul de Tomas, who has scored 45 goals in 89 appearances for the Barcelona club.
Ten Hag’s problems, of course, stretch far beyond Ronaldo’s future, and attention on Saturday turned towards his tactical setup for Brentford, which, as stated earlier, had been three days in the making on the training fields at Carrington.
The most notable individual criticism was directed towards his former Ajax centre-back Martinez, whose 5ft 9in (175cm) height came under scrutiny. Martinez was substituted, along with left-back Luke Shaw and midfielder Fred, at half-time with United already four goals down.
The Argentinian was the one central defender Ten Hag had been sure would start on Wednesday, with Varane and Maguire vying to partner him. By the time the second half began against Brentford, it was Maguire and Varane alongside one another. Ten Hag said he would have had cause to substitute any of his 11 starting players had the option been available.
Brentford goalkeeper David Raya said his team had planned to target a long ball to their powerful striker Ivan Toney, who went up against Martinez.
Raya said: “That was the game plan today — kicking it long, to utilise Ivan’s strengths in the air. We used it the whole game and it paid off.”
Toney himself added: “My qualities in the air is something we worked on. I’m obviously up against a smaller centre-back. It was a good game plan.
“I was just trying to put my body about and get the better of him. To be fair to him, he was doing well. He was very aggressive for a centre-back. Sometimes he gets beat in the air but he was aggressive on the floor. I felt like it was 50-50. Like you said, it’s a compliment to me, him getting subbed off at half-time, whether it was because of me or if it was the style of play they wanted to go for.”
Martinez was a specific target of Ten Hag in this summer’s window, having played the previous three seasons for the Dutch coach at Ajax.
Interestingly, The Athletic has learned United’s scouting network watched numerous Ajax games in recent seasons and despite Martinez often featuring, he was not a player flagged as worthy of closer examination for Ten Hag’s predecessors Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ralf Rangnick.
Some scouts were said to be concerned Martinez was a player who could become trapped at set pieces.
One defender the recruitment team did admire, along with Solskjaer, is Spanish side Villarreal’s Pau Torres.
None of this is to say United have definitely erred in signing Martinez, and club sources also insist that once Ten Hag made clear he wanted the 24-year-old South American, a consensus developed on the decision before it was signed off.
Similarly, although Malacia impressed for United during pre-season, The Athletic has also heard he was a player Wales specifically sought to target in their game plan — due to his 5ft 7in height and their estimation of his abilities — during two Nations League fixtures against the Netherlands in June.
Brentford also appeared to quickly close down Eriksen, who played for them in the second half of last season as he made his comeback after suffering a cardiac arrest playing for Denmark at the European Championship 14 months ago. Eriksen was pounced upon by the Brentford press ahead of their second goal, and central defender Ben Mee said they targeted United’s attempts to play out from the back.
“Man for man, closing them down,” Mee said of Brentford’s approach. “We knew they would be a bit unsure from the weekend (against 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. When we got those opportunities we scored a couple of goals from it.”
While Ten Hag is applying the stick, there is also a need to imbue this grossly underwhelming team with confidence via a bit of carrot, too.
United conceded four goals in the space of 25 minutes on Saturday and have now lost seven consecutive Premier League away matches stretching back to last season — their worst run since the 1930s. They have not won after going 1-0 down since Michael Carrick was in caretaker charge for a 3-2 victory over Arsenal in early December.
De Gea said: “When something goes wrong, people get panicky. It’s difficult. There is no pressure in pre-season, you play for nothing. Then you play Premier League games, everything is different, teams put everything on the pitch. The teams are good, it’s not easy.”
It reinforces the perception, suggested to The Athletic by multiple sources close to the players, that the atmosphere in the United dressing room lacks both the harmony and accountability of teams such as Liverpool and Manchester City.
Relations between goalkeeper De Gea and centre-back Maguire have appeared strained to some observers, although other training ground sources insist the pair do get along reasonably well during training. There are also elements of the squad who expected Ten Hag to change captain this summer after Maguire’s authority in the dressing room was felt to diminish amid his poor form last season.
United are still attempting to recruit De Jong and working on adding competition for De Gea and much-needed reinforcements up front.
One player highly unlikely to join this summer is Declan Rice. The England midfielder has been repeatedly scouted but West Ham are not prepared to do business this year for an asking price considered reasonable either to United or any other suitor at this stage.
Ten Hag’s preferred focus in midfield has always been De Jong but Rice may yet return to the agenda next summer.
Now bottom of the Premier League table, Ten Hag may glance across the city at his former Bayern colleague and mentor Pep Guardiola with a sense of envy.
Guardiola’s Manchester City team are top of the league, having scored six goals and conceded none to begin their bid to win a third straight Premier League title and fifth in six years under him. His Sunday, fresh from a 4-0 Saturday stroll past promoted Bournemouth, was so relaxed he could afford to spend his lunchtime in the city’s Catalan restaurant Tast, in which he is an investor.