IIn the days following the unveiling of Erik ten Hag as Manchester United’s next manager, the conversation turned, avidly, to the magnitude of the task. There is a kind of gluttony in there. How many years are we talking about now? What is the current bid? I hear five. I hear six. How about 10 years. How about 100 years. How about infinite years.
It’s a useless discussion. Partly because it has no content, just numbers pulled from the air. Let’s face it, if you walk in the wrong direction, you won’t get there at all. But there is also something deeply easy about hiring a first-team manager as a kind of balm. Fix us. Give us “a culture”. Make us like Ajax, while having none of the structures that make Ajax into Ajax. In many ways, strapping Ten Hag to this struggling machine is like buying a replica shirt in the hopes that it might turn you into Johan Cruyff.
Yet while Arsenal squeezed out of this fun and slightly wacky game a potentially season-defining result, led by the excellent Bukayo Saka; as United struggled without a chance, it was tempting to wonder. The 100-year plan, doomsday-scenario talk is rooted in an obsession with moral decay, physical cowardice, all the things people like to take out of the theater of sports. Is it really that complex?
Moments of theatre. Scoring lines. The last thing you saw. All this has a powerful intoxicating effect. But it’s essentially a game of talent and money. And the fifth richest football club in the world still has a large share of both.
United scored maybe six on the hour mark. They kept hitting the bar, the post and the goalkeeper. They offered, even in an error-strewn 3-1 loss, proof of the low-hanging fruit that such an organized and focused coach like Ten Hag might still be able to pick up.
At this level, it’s all about clarity and thin margins. Most telling here was the start, a moment that seemed to capture something of the hysteria around this team. Never mind Total Football. It was Total Non-Football. Total entropy. Total collapse.
United had started slowly. Eventually Diogo Dalot gave Granit Xhaka the space to hook a cross into the box – no whipping or pinging, just a doodle. It was too much for the defenders, as first Raphaël Varane and then Alex Telles produced synchronized aerial clearances, a morning Folie Bergères, all the grace of the kicks, as the ball headed towards Saka.
Saka cut inside. It is a tautology. Saka always cuts inside. But knowing he’s going to do it isn’t the same as having the poise, the twitch in your feet to approach him. Saka shot for the far corner. David de Gea saved. The ball fell on Nuno Tavares, indifferent to Dalot, who saw the Arsenal left-back kick it into the net.
Ralf Rangnick had sounded relatively dashing at the start, with that air of a demo-happy schoolteacher looking forward to spending more time with his jazz records. As the goal went in, he turned and just frowned, a man caught in the wrong movie.
It turned out to be a surprisingly bad appointment: a process manager at a club with no process. Not to mention a coach who is so clearly out of step with that kind of player, that kind of environment. United director of football John Murtough was responsible for the outlandish caretaker appointment. At a sane club, he would answer for it – the millions lost, the stalemate of the season – with his own work.
After 28 minutes, it was time for episode two, another helping of defensive-style product from the Manchester United Entertainment Company. A series of errors led Victor Lindelöf to foul Saka as Eddie Nketiah scored from an offside position, delivering a consolation penalty. It arrived via a bizarre VAR check, with Mikel Arteta doing something of a Gogglebox stardom alongside referee, Craig Pawson. Saka scored to make it 2-0.
The weird thing was on either side of that, United had torn Arsenal to shreds. Yes really. Jadon Sancho started taking hungry big chunks from Cedric Soares. Cristiano Ronaldo – who was excellent – scored.
United continued to miss chances, but played with genuine vigor and enterprise. Bruno Fernandes missed a penalty and then lost the ball for Arsenal’s third goal brilliantly scored by Granit Xhaka.
Such is the noise of Manchester United, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that it was Arsenal’s afternoon a mile away. Victory is a huge result. Performances can wait. It’s about results. They have reached this crisis point. Either the slow steps, the weeding, the bad days have all been part of an overall plan, or this multi-faceted die rolls the other way and the Arteta mini-era will be seen as another dead end, another false enlightenment .
It is a perfect measure of the fragility of these margins, of the arbitrariness of certain elements of this race. The Manchester United industrial complex would do well to remember this fact.
This sport offers a lot of agony, but also the possibility of endless renewal. Even amid a 90-minute wake for United’s league season, there was evidence of life here. The trick for Ten Hag will be to capture that, seal it, make it bloom.