GRAEME SOUNESS: Erik ten Hag is covering his own back ALREADY

GRAEME SOUNESS: Erik ten Hag is covering his own back ALREADY… the new Manchester United boss got it all wrong last week and shouldn’t be laying the blame elsewhere

  • Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag has gone into self-preservation mode
  • His negative tone after recent defeats says: ‘I’m looking after my own backside’
  • The Red Devils’ clash with Liverpool on Monday night is best possible fixture
  • Claims that the title race is over are ridiculous only two games into the season

When Erik ten Hag arrived at Manchester United this summer, I was encouraged by his early comments about being a disciplinarian.

It seemed all measured and correct. Now, after a couple of bad results, he sounds to me like someone who has gone into self-preservation mode.

Very quickly his tone is negative: he’s not getting much help, he’s not got the players he wanted, the players have to take responsibility. It’s like, ‘I’m looking after my own backside here’.

Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag should not be laying the blame elsewhere 

I would be concerned by that. You don’t get a free pass. When you’re out spending money — and the three signings so far have been his picks — that free pass shrinks in the wash. Time is not your friend.

It is too strong and too early to say the job is beyond Ten Hag, but he has come from Ajax, the biggest club in the Netherlands, and is now manager of arguably the biggest club in the world. It is a different ball game, different expectation, different pressure.

To be fair to him, he has walked into a club that is rudderless on and off the pitch. But he and his staff have a job to do. It would worry me how badly they did that job during the 4-0 defeat at Brentford last Saturday.

He has Steve McClaren as his assistant, and that is an important role. I worked abroad and felt it was imperative to have someone with knowledge of the league telling me what the challenge was in the next game. What are we going in to? I didn’t know. You get to know your players pretty quickly because you work with them, but you need help in terms of the opposition.

The Red Devils have endured their worst start to a Premier League season since 1992-93

Manchester United were embarrassed 4-0 by Brentford in the second game of the campaign

Last Saturday, United were way wide of the mark with selection and approach. You don’t have to be a nuclear scientist to know what is coming — but United didn’t. Brentford are an in-your-face team who will test you in all aspects of a football match. McClaren, and others around Ten Hag, should have given him better advice.

I mean, 5ft 9in Lisandro Martinez at centre back? Ivan Toney must have looked at him in the warm-up and thought, ‘I’m gonna have a good day today’. And he did. I fear Martinez will struggle in the Premier League because of his size. But he’s Ten Hag’s big signing from Ajax and he won’t abandon him.

I have read that Martinez can also play as a holding midfield player, and he may end up there, especially as United are screaming out for quality in that area. At least he looks combative.

Ten Hag played Christian Eriksen and Bruno Fernandes in his midfield last Saturday, thinking it’s a game of football going to Brentford. As if Thomas Frank tells his players, ‘It’s Man United today, let’s have a jolly nice game of football’.

Brentford rattled United’s cage good and proper. So yes, I would worry about what information Ten Hag is getting from his backroom team.

Harry Maguire’s future is under scrutiny and Chelsea could recruit the defender 

But alarm bells are going off all around the club. Cristiano Ronaldo has given up on them, by the look of it. He came out with a statement last year saying the young players there don’t listen. He should be the perfect role model, yet he is saying, ‘This club ain’t for me’.

That is a damning indictment of Manchester United.

I watched my Sky Sports colleagues Gary Neville and Jamie Redknapp disagree over who is to blame for the current mess — but they were both right. Gary was focused on the Glazers, Jamie on the players and the manager.

Of course, the Glazers are ultimately culpable. They allowed Ed Woodward to continue to make the big calls on recruitment and other football business.

Erik ten Hag’s reign started with a 2-1 defeat to Brighton on the opening weekend of the season

It has been a decade of very poor judgment. They have bought the wrong players and then kept bad ones at the club. The Glazers should have stepped in and said, ‘Ed, stick to commercial, we know you’re good at that’. He was a disaster at the football stuff. That is why Manchester United are where they are.

As for this season, it looks like being another year of scrutiny and disappointment. I wrote in this column two weeks ago that I could see United finishing in the top four. I was wrong. That is almost certainly beyond them.

I don’t see how they can attract the players needed to make up the gap. If United came for you in the Ferguson years, and the five years after, it was a no-brainer, you were going. It is different now. The top players don’t see it the same way.

Which brings me on to Monday’s game against Liverpool at Old Trafford. It is the worst possible match for them at this moment — but also, potentially the best.

Manchester United assistant manager Steve McClaren must offer his experience to ten Hag

Liverpool will be angry with two points from two games, and we know what they are capable of when the fire is lit. They could go there and spank them. A Liverpool beating is also bigger than a Manchester City beating. That is why it’s the worst game for United; the fallout from another bad defeat could be brutal.

On the other side of the coin, a good performance and win, and all of sudden a few things feel right again. But it would only be a short-term boost. There is too much to sort out at the club for one game to change everything.

Everyone will be watching on Monday, and most of the country will be doing so to see if United really are as bad as they’ve looked so far. It will be an intense occasion.

You lose two games at Ajax, sure, you get criticism, but this is the big league now. Ten Hag is under a pressure he has never experienced before, and one he would have imagined impossible after just two bad results.

Title race is over? Absolute nonsense! 

I heard a couple of ludicrous things this week — the first being that the title race is over because Manchester City are four points better off than Liverpool.

Trust me, you won’t find anyone in football who would consider that a possibility. There is nothing won or lost after two games in the Premier League.

Look at Liverpool last year. People had written them off in March and they made a late surge to take it to the last game of the season.

A lot of the noise now came after Liverpool’s 1-1 draw with Crystal Palace on Monday, in which Darwin Nunez was sent off. It has been put to me that his head-butt raises questions about his temperament for Liverpool in the long term.

There is nothing about Darwin Nunez that suggests he is not going to be a success at Liverpool

I’m not having that. What he did was born of frustration. Liverpool weren’t having a good night and there is big pressure on him. He let down himself, his team-mates and his football club. That will not be tolerated, you can’t do that.

But I don’t have worries about him going forward. He is a young fella, 23 years old. Who has learnt all of their lessons by that age? No one.

There is nothing about Nunez that suggests to me he is going to be anything other than an outstanding success at Liverpool.

It was physical, intense, direct. It was the British game at its best

Writing in my 2017 autobiography, I raised a fear about the Premier League becoming too much like the continental game in terms of reduced physicality and more stoppages.

I wrote: ‘As I see it, the quality that separates us from them is that our football has always been a little bit more direct, more physical, played with a lot more passion.

‘The referees have an enormous part to play in this. They cannot make it a sterile, non-tackling league, whatever the Fifa directives may say, otherwise we will just become like the rest.

The 2-2 draw between Chelsea and Tottenham on Sunday was the British game at its best

‘We have to retain our Britishness, which is a slightly more aggressive style of football, where there’s a little bit more allowed to go on. 

‘Human beings like physical encounters.’

What I saw during the 2-2 draw between Chelsea and Spurs was exactly that. I left entertained and reassured by the commitment of the players, their willingness to get on with the game — notice, there was no simulation — and the approach of referee Anthony Taylor. More of that, please.

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