Ten Hag’s Manchester United stand up and die at club stranded in the past

Photograph: James Baylis/AMA/Getty Images

As the seconds ticked down at the end of a Champions League season‑ender that felt like a gentle, even quite tender, act of sporting euthanasia, the only noise inside Old Trafford was the sound of the Bayern Munich fans singing an impressively sustained version of Football’s Coming Home. A little later they sang Is This A Library? Actually, no, it’s more of a museum. They chanted “Auf Wiedersehen” at the departing members of the home support who, frankly, had done pretty well to stick it out to that point.

The good news for Erik ten Hag at the end of this low-fi 1-0 defeat is that United’s players didn’t lie down and die at Old Trafford. Instead they stood up and died, running hard and creating a kind of simulacrum of a functioning elite team.

Related: Erik ten Hag has ‘no regrets’ despite United finishing last in group

This was not a group of players in revolt or drained of spirit. They looked like what they are, a muddled creation, stitched together out of parts and off-cuts. In the second half United’s back five was André Onana, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Jonny Evans, Raphaël Varane and Diogo Dalot, an entirely random collection of players signed, at various times, by Ten Hag, José Mourinho, Ole Gunnar Solskjær and Alex Ferguson. Presumably Daley Thompson, Michael Portillo and Howard from Take That were busy.

By the end United had five academy players on the pitch, ages ranged between 17 and 35, in outline evidence of internal good health, in reality another symptom of a machine that wants to function properly but has for so long been made to judder along at half-speed. Ever feel like you’re starting to slip into the past tense for good? When VAR happens at Old Trafford there isn’t even a VAR screen to say “VAR Check”. The 1990s were a hell of a decade. They still are around here.

So much for the good news then. The bad news is that Ten Hag’s United have now compiled arguably the worst performance by any English team in a Champions League group stage. OK, it’s no Blackburn Rovers. But there are extra marks here for United’s pedigree, for the fact the group really wasn’t much of a group, and for United managing to finish bottom, shipping 15 goals in the process, more than any other English team ever.

Plus of course there were just so many moments of farce along the way, a six-part saga of chaos, collapse and laughter in the dark. We remember Onana diving out of the way of the ball in Munich. We remember Onana also diving out of the way of the ball in Istanbul. Casemiro’s red card, lost leads in Manchester, Marcus Rashford unfairly convicted of a venomous stamp in Copenhagen, when frankly, he’s just not that kind of semi-interested footballer.

And yet with both group games blank at half-time United were still just one goal away here from going through to the last 16, which really would have made for an excellent punchline. It wasn’t to be. For all their own flaws Bayern are basically a good version of whatever it is United are attempting to piece together. Kimmich‑Goretzka‑Musiala is an A grade version of Amrabat‑McTominay‑Fernandes. Manuel Neuer is the thing Onana is trying so earnestly to be. Bayern actually did go ahead and sign Harry Kane.

They held the ball nicely, probed in neat, clipped, mannered attacks. A lot seemed to hinge on how desperately Bayern felt the need to twist that scalpel, whether they could really be bothered to take this thing to the wall. United defended well. Their waves of pressing drew waves of applause. Everyone here seemed to be trying.

But with 58 minutes gone Copenhagen scored and United’s hopes began to slip beneath the waves. Just over 10 minutes later Bayern made it 1-0 in Manchester. Kingsley Coman got it, granted a huge expanse of time and space in front of the United goal, enough to set himself, as though taking a penalty, and belt the ball into the corner. The moment was made by a delightfully sneaky round‑the‑corner pass from Kane. After all that pressure, all that tender hope, it looked a bit like a training goal.

And that was pretty much that. From here United’s season continues to narrow. They can’t win the league now, can’t win the Champions League, can’t win the Carabao Cup. They still have the FA Cup, and the extended pursuit of fourth or even fifth place, although the state of the coefficient means the thing that might keep Manchester United out of Europe next season could be Manchester United being so bad in Europe this season. Maybe City can revive their fortunes by winning the Champions League again.

Ten Hag will take the blame of course for the early exit and plenty of mistakes have been made, not least in the players the manager has been allowed to sign. In reality assessing the job any United manager does with this team involves applying a series of filters. To be United manager is to undertake three concurrent roles.

First you must manage the past, which is constantly in the room and which skews every act, achievement and expectation. Second you must manage the dysfunction of the present, which expresses itself in every detail from a leaking stadium roof to the deep ills of a playing squad peopled with squatters and long‑term missteps.

Finally you get to manage the everyday metrics on which you will be judged; team, results, style, energy, messaging. Win things, improve players, create a coherent and happy internal culture: but do it during an unceasing takeover circus while star players sulk and brief against you, while the ghost of Hamlet’s father still skulks in the eaves. This felt like the end of one thing, perhaps even the beginning of the end of something else.


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