Man Utd and Erik ten Hag are stuck in the cul de sac of dysfunction

John Nicholson
Man Utd trio Casemiro, Victor Lindelof, Lisandro Martinez
Casemiro, Victor Lindelof, Lisandro Martinez look dejected during a match.

If football’s economics made any sense at all (which perhaps they don’t) a side that cost £17m really shouldn’t be able to so easily beat a side that cost £347m, but that’s just what Brighton effortlessly did to Manchester United.

It rather proves what I was writing about a couple of weeks ago that money spent in the Premier League is not infinitely elastic in what it can achieve. There comes a point where spending ever more doesn’t make the club better – quite the opposite – and it looks as though Manchester United have reached that point.

As one of global football’s biggest brands, their current failings are a blessing to everyone in the football media and to most non-United fans. There is much valuable content, traffic and delight to be drummed up on the back of it.

While Erik ten Hag has been a successful coach at Ajax, managing United takes a whole different skill-set to any he’s had to deploy before. Even the small things are big things at Old Trafford, while the big things have their own gravitational pull. You are doing even the most trivial of things on a world stage under the scrutiny of millions of eyes and those eyes mean you are generating hundreds of millions of pounds for the club while doing so.

No wonder that Ten Hag has already been written off by some of the fanbase. Every club has its headbanger supporters but when you’ve got such a big following, if just 5% are absolutely 100% numpties, that is still quite a big number and they can put a lot of pressure on. But there’s no point in removing the Dutchman. Ten Hag is just going to have to learn how to deal with all of this on the job as best he can. Indeed, that’s what every manager since Sir Alex Ferguson left has had to do and none have been able to do it for long.

There is no other job like being United’s manager. Add the fact the Premier League is the most-followed league in the world and there really is no hiding place at any time and there’s also a lot of money to be made. And United make a lot of money, at least by football’s standards.

He’s already had to say the club is not in crisis, even though no-one really believes him with five points after five games and problems with at least two high-profile players. The nature of how they play, as much as the points total, does not bode well. Does anyone think that he can correct their spiralling form for more than a few fixtures, let alone guide them consistently to significant silverware? No. Or at least, very few.

The club is now unmanageable. It is too popular. It generates too much money. It is under too much scrutiny. It is broken. And spending ever more money only further opens up the wounds, rather than healing them. Expensive players can’t handle the pressure, while big wages demotivate others and some just hate being there and want out.

It is obviously not a happy club and obviously not a club that is being governed in a coherent manner, probably because it is too big to be governed in a coherent manner. And that is their core problem. When you’re wedded to generating big profits in order to buy big players for big money, when generating big profits to buy big players for big money is part of the reason for your malaise, you’re stuck in a the cul de sac of dysfunction.

And when dysfunction becomes the endemic nature of the club, that dysfunction innately undermines all attempts to change it. Indeed, the only thing that functions properly at United is the dysfunction. United can’t really get smaller, make less money and be less scrutinised, so there is no way out of this predicament. It doesn’t matter who the manager is, it probably doesn’t matter who the owner is. Even the most proven get dragged below the water by the United riptide of self-destruction.

Every time it appears a corner has been turned there comes another bend in the road. Buy a top player for a lot of money to try and improve the team and he makes them worse.

Ferguson made the club into a behemoth. While that lasted for 20 years or so, it was nonetheless an aberration; a freak of nature which when married to good business sense grew the club to the humongous level it now finds itself at. But remove the Fergie gene and it fails on the pitch, while succeeding off it.

Ten Hag can talk about the team’s character, or about tactics or players, but the same curse that has been affecting the team for 10 years remains in place to disrupt any attempts to restore the club to football’s elite. It literally doesn’t matter what he does, he will fail. It is as though the club is a virus which is sustained by the very software which tries to remove the virus.

They need a period out of the spotlight, stripped of their wealth, ego and pretensions. Time out of the massive magnifying glass of public scrutiny in order to reboot the whole operation onto a different footballing server. But that literally can’t happen unless the club is prepared to contradict football’s late capitalist economic orthodoxy and there is no understanding of and zero appetite for such a notion.

The worse they get, the more the vultures circle, feeding on the corpse. Yet the number of eyes that can be monetised on the car crash ensures that United themselves grow their finances, grow their business on the back of their own failure, in a kind of Catch 22 situation, unable to escape from their own nature because of their own nature.

Is it possible that a club can get too big, can generate too much money, can have too many fans, can spend too much money, can pay too high transfer fees, can pay too high wages? Conventional wisdom is that all of these things are the sign of a successful club. But United are not successful and disproves it.

Perhaps the very nature of the club dictates that they never will be again until they are no longer the United we have come to know. But that can’t happen if they continue to financially benefit from the amount of scrutiny their failure attracts. They are stuck in a spiral of decline on the pitch, while the business booms. They have the money to buy expensive high-profile players, in doing so attracting even more traffic and generating even more money, which is where their problems all began in the first place.

There simply doesn’t seem any long-term way out of failure for a club that is a monster grown in the Old Trafford petri dish from its own DNA.