Manchester United are in crisis. There can be little doubt about that. Aside from the worst stats from the worst start as United manager in a century and presiding over the worst start to a Premier League season in 30 years, Erik ten Hag’s reputation is already in tatters. He will have to be an exceptional manager, a man of considerable moral courage, to recover from this.
Drops of sweat on his bare head, the London sun fell on the Dutchman as Brentford United ripped apart and merrily ripped them apart in the first half. It was as bad as anything produced in the dog days of David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, José Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjær, and far worse than any performance under Ralf Rangnick, the much-discussed immediate predecessor. Last season’s mistakes are miles away from recovery. Too many misfits and transfer busts, and while fans may be looking for clearances and fresh blood, two of Ten Hag’s additions in Lisandro Martínez and Christian Eriksen played a full part in the disaster.
That United’s troubles run even deeper was reflected in the ongoing protests against Glazer’s away-game possession, even though the absent Florida billionaires weren’t on the pitch during the first two games of the season. Nor did they choose a team that operated as disinterested satellites of each other. At Brentford, there was plenty of blame to go around, and a growling Cristiano Ronaldo was only too happy to equalize.
Ronaldo’s selection made sense in the sense that United had no one else fit and able to play as a striker. Picking someone to leave the club seemed a little less logical. At least there would be no repeat of his pouting on the bench, as seen against Brighton last week. Instead, Scott McTominay was the only player to be dropped after an opening weekend disappointment that now looks like a happy memory.
Alongside McTominay’s former partner in crime, Fred, Eriksen took over the deep central midfield role from which he helped bring Brentford to safety last season, with markedly lesser success. A vocal minority of home fans were in a ruthless mood over his choice of Manchester over West London: his early touches were booed and there were firm memories of the score when Brentford scored their first-half goals.
Eriksen’s heir to the throne for club and country, Mikkel Damsgaard, a Euro 2020 breakout star, was on the bench, not yet fit enough to start after his move from Sampdoria. Josh Dasilva got the nod after his goal netted Leicester a point last Sunday. Despite the baking heat, Brentford played their usual athletic game, pushing hard and making full use of set pieces. They were offered much of the latter thanks to United’s persistent offense and utter desperation when their vulnerability was brutally exposed.
Dasilva’s opener came through Brentford’s aggression and United’s submission. Mathias Jensen easily robbed Ronaldo and the ball fell into a space from which a speculative shot could be attempted. De Gea might try to blame the high, early evening sun for his mistake, but this was not unusual. For all his brilliance on many other occasions, the Spaniard is prone to dropping clangers. The ball seeped over the line and the keeper buried his head in the turf in a familiar fashion.
De Gea was not alone in his ineptitude. Far from. Harry Maguire was only saved from a red card when he knocked down Ivan Toney because Martínez was almost at the crime scene. Maguire saved an error in Eriksen’s possession. The midfielder’s next mistake would be more expensive. When United tried to play out uncomfortably from a goal kick, Eriksen was troubled by Martínez. Jensen snuck in, got up, and calmly stroked home.
Only 18 minutes had been played and Ronaldo was furious and barked at his teammates, and Brentford fans joyfully predicted that Ten Hag would be fired in the morning.” Thirteen minutes after United folded again, Ben Mee stooped to head in from the back post after Toney was given time and space to deliver a corner.
If that looked easy, the next thing was even easier. Jensen robbed Jadon Sancho in the box and released Toney, who went on to play Bryan Mbeumo at home. United’s defenses were completely absent as Brentford sailed on unchecked.
Ten Hag’s halftime reaction was to remove the hapless Martínez and Luke Shaw and trade McTominay back for Fred.
Tyrell Malacia and Raphaël Varane also came in and United finally got some territory. Ronaldo’s first chance of the game no longer came after that, as did his second, both of Diogo Dalot’s crosses. However, the attacker’s mood did not improve as he furiously hit the turf after going over the head twice. To his credit, Ronaldo often fell low when he tried to make something – anything – happen, perhaps hoping to save his own night with a goal. Anthony Elanga was introduced to Sancho, who had been virtually anonymous.
Eriksen forced the first save of the game from Brentford goalkeeper, David Raya, with a weak header, while Brentford leaned back on their gaping advantage. Jensen, Mbeumo and Dasilva left the field to receive a deserved standing ovation on a famous day, having orchestrated a United’s first defeat since 1938 that will be long remembered. For Ten Hag, and for anyone hoping Manchester United can one day revive, it will no doubt linger as a feverish nightmare and new low.