Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Bedeviling Times At Manchester United

The leave of absence by Manchester United winger Antony adds to the questions surrounding Erik ten Hag’s project at Manchester United. Last year, Ten Hag overcame early controversy surrounding Cristiano Ronaldo and a bumpy start in the league to deliver a successful Premier League debut for the former Ajax manager. Manchester United not only secured Champions League football with a third-place finish in the league but also added more silverware to the club’s trophy case with an FA Cup win. Ten Hag gained in stature with his tough stance on Cristiano, who would depart the club, and for his benching of club captain Harry Maguire.

Ten Hag’s influence was reflected in the purchase of some of his former players from Ajax. Center back Lisandro Martinez was acquired to take Maguire’s place in the lineup. Brazilian winger Antony was expected to add energy to the club’s attack. Unfortunately, Antony will be taking a leave of absence from the team amid accusations of abuse against women in both Brazil and Manchester. The Antony situation follows the recent loan of Mason Greenwood to Getafe after also being the subject of abuse allegations. Greenwood was suspended by the club in 2022 before ten Hag’s arrival. The Dutch manager, however, was subject to the recent criticism of the club’s clumsy handling of the Greenwood situation. Reportedly, ten Hag and others at the club were prepared to restore the talented youngster to the roster after criminal charges were dropped. Uproar from supporters, however, forced the club to change its stance and ship Greenwood to the Spanish league. Ten Hag is liable for more direct criticism if the allegations against Antony prove true as the manager would have been expected to be familiar with the character of his former player.

The Antony situation comes just as another off-field controversy envelops the manager. Failed winger Jaden Sancho has openly questioned ten Hag’s honesty on social media and talks between player and manager are expected this week regarding the player’s future. Ten Hag is surely to feel additional betrayal as he has shown patience with Sancho in the past, allowing the former Borussia Dortmund star to train away from the club in the Netherlands last season until fitness problems were addressed. Sancho scored only 12 goals over his first two Premier League seasons after scoring 36 in his last two years at Dortmund.

The off-field challenges come amidst another difficult start in the league. Manchester United has already lost matches to Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur and the club is sitting outside the top half of the table after four matches. The club’s acquisition of Mason Mount is not looking good. Ten Hag was playing Mount in an unfamiliar deep lying position and the experiment was failing badly before injury sidelined the former Chelsea player. Moroccan international Sofyan Amrabat was acquired in a deadline day loan deal to help address the midfield problem. Hopefully, Amrabat can align alongside Casemiro to provide adequate cover for the Manchester United back line. Scott McTominay, meanwhile, has been starring for Scotland but strangely is not viewed by Ten Hag as a solution to his defensive midfield problems.

Ten Hag’s line up concerns do not stop with the midfield, however. The backline in front of new goalkeeper Andre Onana has been ravaged by injury. Both Luke Shaw and backup left back Tyrell Malacia are hurt, leading to an emergency loan deal at the deadline for Sergio Reguilon, a below average performer for Spurs. Injuries to center backs Raphael Varane and Lisandro Martinez have seen Maguire return to the mix with both he and former center back partner Victor Lindelof getting minutes in recent matches. The club has also employed 35-year-old defender Jonny Evans at times as an emergency stop gap.

Problems in attack have also contributed to a negative goal differential this season for a Manchester United side which has scored five goals against seven conceded. All top six clubs in the table have scored at least three more goals than Manchester United. Marcus Rashford is the only Red Devil forward to score this season. With the questions now surrounding wingers Antony and Sancho, perhaps ten Hag can rethink his deployment of Mason Mount and put him where he is more comfortable in a more forward position. The jury is understandably out on young striker Rasmus Hojlund whose debut with the Red Devils was delayed by a back injury. Questions need to be asked, however. The striker position was a clear need for the club this offseason. Rather than acquiring a proven performer, the club bet on the potential of a 20-year-old who scored nine goals in Serie A for Atalanta last year.

As ten Hag works to find solutions on the pitch, and player controversies make off the field news, there is yet another issue adding to consternation for Manchester United supporters. The Glazer family, hugely unpopular with the faithful, continue to tease with the potential sale of the club. Plans to explore that option were first disclosed last November. In the meantime, however, bedeviled Manchester United supporters must put their trust in Eric ten Hag if the club’s problems are to be solved in the short term. Not all supporters might be comfortable with that prospect.

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