Even those Manchester United players most detached from reality cannot have been shocked when Erik ten Hag cancelled their day off in the wake of the Brentford humiliation.
But you can be sure they were surprised, horrified probably, when upon reporting to Carrington the manager and his staff sent them on an eight-and-a-half-mile Sunday morning run.
Sports scientists certainly were if those who The Athletic spoke to are representative of their wider community. Actually, they were ‘unanimously stunned’ by Ten Hag’s response to United’s newest nadir.
It would be fascinating to know what those sports scientists would have done differently in the circumstances. Even if it isn’t relevant in this instance. Ten Hag didn’t have a physiological motive in mind; this was a punishment, pure and simple.
If true, I’m assuming the sports science & physio staff intervened. That’s how you get players into the red zone and/or injured https://t.co/oj9Jjq5uEu
— Dr. Rajpal Brar, DPT (@3cbPerformance) August 14, 2022
Nobody can argue that the players didn’t deserve it. Many observers, regardless of how long they have been watching United, will tell you what the Red Devils served up on Saturday night was the worst, most spineless and pathetic surrender they have ever seen from their side.
Supporters will – almost as unanimously as those sports scientists – have taken the opposite view, that Ten Hag was right to run his feckless flops. They probably didn’t run far enough.
They would be right. The carrot clearly hasn’t worked for the new regime during the early days of their tenure, or for any other manager in recent years. This was absolutely the right time for Ten Hag to brandish his stick.
Does that make dinosaurs of him and the supporters who took some solace in the players’ Sunday morning being as miserable as their Saturday night? Not really. The modern-day culture at elite level values accountability, the lack of which goes some way to explaining why United are in the mess they are.
For these players, there have so far been no consequences for their half-arsed actions. Turn up, f*** up, tune out, repeat.
An hour or two in the ‘red zone’ might not have done them much good physically – which was never the aim – but it’s unlikely to have done them any harm either. As The Athletic reported, United’s own performance specialists saw no issue with the players being told to make up the physical deficit they accrued at Brentford. They had eight days until their next match when, in all likelihood, Liverpool will put them through an even more merciless workout at Old Trafford.
Even if those who monitor the workload protested, Ten Hag would have been right to pull rank. After all, whatever United have been doing previously to optimise performance, it obviously hasn’t had the desired effect.
The United squad is Exhibit A for those who argue the case that today’s elite environment, where every need and whim is catered for and every movement monitored so that players aren’t over-exerted, can also breed a weak mentality.
Nor does it help to harden the United stars that they have had multiple shields to hide behind when the flak has been flying over the years. Their managers have taken most of the bullets, despite Jose Mourinho and Ralf Rangnick being proven right about their squads startlingly quickly after being bundled out of the firing line. While the Glazer family, cockroaches that they are, are far harder to wipe out. As long as Joel, Avram and co are baring the brunt of the righteous anger over the state of the club, the players can keep taking the p*ss.
It took Ten Hag, a modern coach by all indicators, just a month and a half of working with this rabble to revert to old-school methods. No one is advocating a return to the old days, where the environment could just as easily destroy a character as build it. But a balance has to be sought. Since there’s no use fining stars who are all richer than God and the manager can’t drop them all, as much as supporters might wish he could, a brief trip to the red zone is the quickest and simplest way for Ten Hag demonstrate to his players that their output is unacceptable. And, remember, THAT wasn’t just unacceptable, it was a disgrace to his and the club’s name.