17th August, 2022
The picture above tells the story of Manchester United.
Bruno Fernandes points at Christian Eriksen after Eriksen’s loss of possession contributes to another Brentford goal. Eriksen throws his hands up, seeming to deny responsibility. Harry Maguire, the captain, observes from a distance. Manchester United are only halfway to the 4-0 deficit they will face through 45 minutes against Brentford at the Community Stadium. But even here, the game is beyond them, and in a familiar scene, most of the players don’t look pleased to be on a football pitch.
The end result is a fifth four-goal defeat in 10 months, and worse, a sense that ex-skipper Gary Neville’s body language comments from last December, which prompted internal discussion at the club, are still as true as ever.
“They’re a bunch of whingebags,” Neville said on Sky Sports at the time. “Watch them on that pitch. Arms in the air, complaining about everything. They got the last manager the sack [and] they’ll get a lot of managers the sack, that lot, if they carry on like that.”
The results sting, of course. Through two weeks, the Red Devils are dead last in the Premier League – the first time they’ve sunk that low since 1992. Perhaps even more frustrating for fans, however, is the sense that the club do not have proper leadership to cut out the petulant displays Neville highlighted a year ago.
Erik ten Hag, the manager tasked with changing culture at Old Trafford, is trying a disciplinarian approach, at times treating his squad like misbehaved school children. He scolded Fernandes for subpar work in summer drills. He yelled at players during an exhibition clash with Crystal Palace for their poor passes. He called teenager Zidane Iqbal “f*cking rubbish” in open pre-season training. He benched Cristiano Ronaldo for the season opener amid a transfer saga. After the Brentford debacle, he cancelled a scheduled day off and reportedly made players run 13.8 kilometres (8.5 miles) – the exact distance the Bees out-ran them on Saturday.
Outwardly, players have claimed they’re OK with Ten Hag’s intense style.
“We missed that for a while and discipline is important,” Fernandes told ESPN last month.
But the poor mannerisms against Brentford suggest the problem cannot be hammered out of the squad through brute force from the touchline. The message still isn’t getting through.
So where do they turn?
Perhaps it’s time to look towards the Liverpool blueprint, specifically in regards to squad building. That’s not what Manchester United fans will want to hear in terms of the traditional tribal rivalry between the two clubs, but there is lots to be learned from their upcoming opponent, who endured a dramatic fall from grace in the early 2010s and stormed back to Champions League and Premier League glory.
Long before Jurgen Klopp’s arrival, Liverpool prioritised the development of a future leader on the pitch, signing a 21-year-old Jordan Henderson to be the captain heir to Steven Gerrard. Henderson took time to live up to expectations, to grow into his role, and he faced withering criticism in the interim. But the team, beginning with Gerrard, believed in him, and he used his low points as learning experiences.
“Gerrard knew as soon as he saw him,” recalled ex-defender Jose Enrique to LFC Transfer Room. “Gerrard was the first one that believed in Hendo, that he was going to become this [player] and he supported him.
“I love that Stevie knew Hendo was the right person to become the new captain of the club and he wasn’t wrong.”
Fast-forward to Klopp arriving, and Liverpool’s transfer business hit top gear. In Henderson, the perfect leader was already in place to lean on as the Reds rose to the summit of both England and Europe. The England midfielder maintained the emotional balance of the team. He was crucial.
Centre-back Virgil van Dijk explained: “If any young player wants to follow an example, it should be him. He has been putting the team before himself for years. What I like is that he uses everything he has experienced – the lows, the criticism, the trouble with injuries – to help others through similar situations.”
Manchester United do not have a commanding veteran presence like Gerrard or Jamie Carragher, players who taught Henderson and a host of younger team-mates how to approach the sport professionally. And it’s unclear whether the heir to Maguire’s troubled captaincy is even at the club yet.
GOAL understands that there is a last-ditch effort to sign Casemiro from Real Madrid – a veteran and serial winner who fits the captain mould but is likely unattainable.
Sources also say that there is emerging interest in 20-year-old Brighton midfielder Moises Caicedo – a potential future leader at Old Trafford.
There are many daunting tasks ahead of the Red Devils, but crafting a real vision to strengthen their on-field leadership must be urgent. Otherwise, Ten Hag may have a difficult time enacting change and could struggle to hold on to his job much longer than his predecessors.
“You can’t have a tactical plan but then put it in the bin,” Ten Hag pointedly told reporters at the weekend. “They are good players and have to take responsibility on the pitch as a team and as individuals, and that’s what we didn’t do. I asked them to play with belief and take responsibility for their performance, and that’s what they didn’t do.”