Ten Hag on the brink as meek Man United fail to even attempt unlikely Champions League escape act

Dave Tickner
Jonny Evans reacts as Manchester United limp out of Europe
Jonny Evans reacts as Manchester United limp out of Europe

As the clock at Old Trafford ticked towards 90 minutes and with Manchester United needing two late goals against Bayern Munich to keep their European hopes alive, Diogo Dalot found himself in possession down the inside-left channel. He looked up and saw only Scott McTominay ahead of him. Dalot checked back, attempted a pass out to the left, and sent it directly out of play.

The chants of ‘Attack, attack, attack’ that had fallen deaf ears all night long turned once more to groans as gleeful Bayern fans sang Three Lions and United slunk out of European competition altogether for another season with barely a whimper.

The bulk of the damage, of course, was done not here tonight in a meek 1-0 defeat to a vulnerable and half-interested Bayern Munich but in the chaotic home defeat to Galatasaray, and the squandered leads in Copenhagen and Istanbul.

Their chance of qualification tonight was negligible and even that minuscule chance was undeserved. Against a backdrop of 14 goals conceded in five games, it was also almost understandable for Erik Ten Hag – a man now personifying the word beleaguered – to try something different. It wasn’t entirely crazy to imagine a strategy of simply sitting in the game against a Bayern side who were already safely through as group winners and might not be that bothered could offer chances in the end to pinch a result.

But that’s still a wildly undignified way for Manchester United to approach things. An affront to the club’s history and ideals. To look at a Bayern Munich side that suffered a 5-1 defeat at Eintracht Frankfurt on the weekend and conclude there was no chance of beating them in a proper game of football.

And even if ‘sit in the game and hope Bayern get bored and/or careless’ was an understandable if unforgivably timid general strategy, it was one that did really need to chance once the visitors took a 70th-minute lead when a gloriously deft Harry Kane touch left Kingsley Coman with the freedom of the United penalty area and time to pick his spot from close range as Andre Onana remained inexplicably yet firmly rooted to his goalline.

But it never did. United’s efforts in the final 20 minutes can only really be understood as a wilful attempt at actively trying to avoid dropping into the Europa League. They certainly made no sense for a team trying to salvage something, anything from a mortifying campagin. Ten Hag could at the very least have brought on Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Even now, that pair would probably have offered more than the entirely anonymous Rasmus Hojlund, who nevertheless deserves sympathy for being offered so very little to work with.

There’s a real end-of-days feel to Old Trafford now. Ten Hag may cling on for a while but it’s hard to see him actually digging himself or United out of this rut. He isn’t the (main) problem at this rotting football club, but he has never looked further away from being the solution.

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The meekness of United’s approach, the apparent unwillingness or inability to even make any kind of a go of it, brought to mind Antonio Conte’s Spurs limping equally pitifully out of last year’s competition to Milan at the last-16 stage. Trailing 1-0 from the first leg, Spurs seemed only hazily aware of even the theoretical possibility of qualification in the return, mustering a mere two shots on target as Milan, scarcely believing their luck, sauntered casually into the next round.

That was still twice as many shots on target as United managed here, though. Conte was gone less than three weeks later. It would be no surprise to see Ten Hag gone by Christmas. It’s hard to see how he would survive an eminently feasible humiliation at Anfield this weekend.

Whether it would actually change anything is an entirely different matter. This United squad is a mess. There are promising kids here – there always are – but they surely won’t get the best environment in which to prosper while the senior squad is such a rabble.

With the best will in the world, there is simply no way that Jonny Evans should be Manchester United’s best defender in a Champions League game against Bayern Munich in the year 2023. Scott McTominay is a fine footballer at last getting his dues; he should, nevertheless, not offer Manchester United’s primary goal threat.

A new manager can only change so much. But things can’t go on like this.

Bayern didn’t even play well. They were half-interested. They never did get out of second gear. They never had any reason to. Thomas Tuchel showed United the respect of naming a full-strength side when neither the opposition nor situation demanded it, but they were not sent out to operate at full throttle. They would happily win the game if the opportunity arose, but they weren’t going to go out and chase it. The onus was all on United, and they offered almost nothing.

Luke Shaw and Harry Maguire hobbling out of the game and who knows how long in the treatment room added injury to insult for United fans who can rarely have witnessed such an insipid effort in a situation that called for death or glory heroics.

This was a United performance that brought to mind a Homer Simpson quote. They’d tried their best in the previous matches of this group stage and failed miserably. The lesson Ten Hag and his team took from that into the do-or-die final act was ‘never try’.