EPL TALK: Manchester United thrashing does ten Hag a favour
He'll be under no illusions that the brittle-bone culture still persists among Red Devils, and he needs to fill the leadership void
IN THE TV studio, they came to bury a dead performance. Gary Neville was disgusted. His beloved club had been cowed by the Kop. Roy Keane’s outraged schtick was particularly relevant. There was no spirit, desire, hunger or any of the other trademarked Keane-isms. There was nothing.
Seven goals. Seven. Only good things come in sevens: brave dwarves, heroic cowboys and great movies with Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman. Seven is a lucky number - for Liverpool. For Manchester United, it’s a warning. For Erik ten Hag, it’s a prayer for the dying.
A little over the top? Of course! This is a football column about the most melodramatic match in the world game, where a transitional team inflicted the heaviest defeat upon a supposedly resurgent team in 92 years. In terms of circus, the Kardashians performing cartwheels through a boxing exhibition involving Chris Rock and Will Smith doesn’t even get close.
Anfield hosted a glorious farce, but one that ten Hag might have privately needed.
Every Neville dig, every Keane cliché, every Graeme Souness reminiscence about what was expected in his day, every incredulous giggle from Jamie Carragher provides ammunition for the boardroom and a reminder of what’s required in the dressing room.
In this instance, the pundits are all correct. The hyperbole is justified. United bottled it. The Kop suffocated them. The occasion crushed them.
Manchester United now have a Manchester United manager, but not a Manchester United squad. Sir Alex Ferguson’s career-long obsession with putting temperament on a par with talent ensured the Red Devils won trebles and Liverpool wore flash white suits at Wembley, but won little of note. Ten Hag is blessed with this temperament. His team are not.
Individual errors happen. But when there are enough, collectively, to lead to seven conceded goals and a domino-like collapse from front to back, something else is revealed. The rot didn’t stop with Cristiano Ronaldo. It lingers.
Bruno Fernandes’ gesticulating went from irritating to infuriating as Liverpool’s running was not replicated by the Portuguese prancer. Instead, he threw his arms in the air and looked to the heavens for sympathy. Oh, to be blessed with such talent, but cursed with such substandard colleagues, eh?
Maybe. But if you’d tracked back a bit, mate, the deficit might have been halved.
Short-term tactics can – and have been – addressed at United. Ten Hag’s dramatic intervention inspired a winning run that saw just one defeat in 22 matches, picking up a Carabao Cup along the way. But a culture is a long-term process. And it can’t always be fixed either, only removed.
Neville was astute in his analysis that his lot rarely collapsed at Anfield, no matter the form of the respective sides. His leadership group would not have tolerated such a mutinous response to going a goal or two behind. And while Keane does lapse into caricature with his weekly soliloquies on “leaders in the dressing room”, he has a case here.
There were none at Anfield. Fernandes wore the armband and led by an inglorious example. The skipper’s second-half lack of application was dutifully followed by the surrendering men in white. The other captain never left the bench (and when there’s no role for a centre-back at 7-0, then it’s time for Harry Maguire to call his agent).
Ten Hag needs more leaders on the pitch
When Liverpool clicked, United logged off for the night.
Luke Shaw’s confidence deserted him. The little boy lost under Jose Mourinho put in an appearance instead. Lisandro Martinez seemed to spin off his own axis. Diogo Dalot looked like the Diogo Dalot before ten Hag's arrival. They all did. One trip to Anfield was enough to restore factory settings.
The Red Devils behaved like grown-ups bumping into an old school bully again. They regressed to a timid, child-like state as the traumas of past bullying returned. They couldn’t react. They couldn’t overcome such an intimidating presence. A belligerent Kop was enough to bring everything flooding back and inhibit them. They froze.
In a way, ten Hag really needed to see this. He knows the statistics. United have managed only one goal in their last seven games at Anfield. They haven’t left Liverpool with a victory since 2016. But to witness the mental block first hand, to see how easily the Kop overwhelmed his startled rabbits had to be a chastening experience.
The Dutchman doesn’t have a relentless Gary Neville, running the length of the pitch to celebrate a goal by kissing the United badge in front of Liverpool supporters, or even a Jordan Henderson or a Mo Salah, capable of bending a hostile atmosphere to one’s will.
Casemiro leads by example, a wonderful footballer, but Anfield isn’t a wonderful venue. It’s brutish and spiteful. It’s a place to lead or hide. There is no middle ground to be found within the Shankly Gates. Ten Hag requires something more.
His tactical shopping list is straightforward. A striker, a right-back and perhaps a No.10, to provide cover for Fernandes and Christian Eriksen, are the obvious items, but he’s really in the market for that elusive, intangible quality that Ferguson had a sixth sense for, the psychological extra that builds dynasties; i.e. players who don’t bottle it at Anfield.
It’s easy to define; just less easy to buy.
At least ten Hag has seen it for himself now. His crash test dummies left him with a wreck. Fernandes, Antony, Shaw, Martinez and Dalot all hit the wall. But there were other culprits in the mass desertion, offering an ugly reality check, if nothing else. The brittle-boned culture persists. United must fill their leadership void.
When their manager surveys the wreckage, he’ll consider the men who humiliated him. Liverpool didn’t just sign a goalkeeper, a centre-back and a forward. They signed Alisson, Virgil van Dijk and Salah, instinctive masters of their respective territories. The trio were confidence personified. Fear was for the other guy.
This is what ten Hag really wants now, a mindset to match his own. Ferguson had Keane. Ten Hag has a sulky, arm-flapping Fernandes. It’s a mismatch that can only be addressed in the next transfer window.
United won the Carabao Cup with a few good men. But to face down Liverpool at Anfield, they need a few good monsters.
Ferguson had Keane. Ten Hag has a sulky, arm-flapping Fernandes. It’s a mismatch that can only be addressed in the next transfer window.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.
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