Manchester United is in crisis. There can be little doubt about that. Beyond the statistics of the worst start as a 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 ruined. He must be an exceptional manager, a man of considerable moral courage, to recover from this.
Beads of sweat on his bare head, the London sun beating down on the Dutchman as Brentford tore United apart, happily picking 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-maligned immediate predecessor. The injustices of last season are leagues away from being righted. Too many misfits and transfer busts, and while fans may be clamoring for clearouts and fresh blood, two of Ten Hag’s additions in Lisandro Martínez and Christian Eriksen played full roles in the disaster.
That United’s problems run even deeper was reflected by continued protests against the Glazer ownership away from home, even though the absent Floridian billionaires were not on the pitch for 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 snarling Cristiano Ronaldo was only too happy to equalise.
The choice of Ronaldo (left) was logical in the sense that United had no one else fit and able to play as a striker. Choosing someone who wants to leave the club seemed somewhat less logical. At least there wouldn’t be a repeat of his bench foolery, which we saw last week against Brighton. Instead, Scott McTominay was the only player dropped from an opening weekend disappointment that now resembles a happy memory.
Along with McTominay’s former partner in crime, Fred, Eriksen took on the deep central midfield role that he helped bring Brentford to safety last season, with considerably less success. A vocal minority of the home fans were in an unforgivable mood for his choice of Manchester over west London: his early touches were deflected and there were stark reminders of the scoreline as Brentford netted the goals in the first half.
Eriksen’s heir for club and country, Mikkel Damsgaard, a breakout star at Euro 2020, was on the bench, not yet fit enough to start after his move from Sampdoria. Josh Dasilva got the nod after his goal salvaged a point at Leicester last Sunday. Despite the baking heat, Brentford played their usual athletic game, pressing hard and making the most of set pieces. They were offered plenty of the latter thanks to United’s persistent fouling and utter desperation as their fragility was brutally exposed.
Dasilva’s opener came through Brentford’s aggression and United’s submission. Mathias Jensen robbed Ronaldo easily, and the ball flowed into a room from which a speculative shot could be attempted. De Gea may well try to blame the high, early evening sun for his error, but this was a not uncharacteristic mistake. For all his brilliance on many other occasions, the Spaniard is prone to dropping clangers. The ball trickled over the line, and the keeper famously buried his head in the turf.
De Gea was not alone in his ineptitude. Far from. Harry Maguire was only saved from a red card when he brought down Ivan Toney because Martínez was almost at the scene. Maguire saved a possession error from Eriksen. The midfielder’s next mistake would be more costly. When United uncomfortably tried to play out from a goal kick, Eriksen was played into trouble by Martínez. Jensen stole in, straightened up and calmly walked home.
Just 18 minutes had been played and Ronaldo was raging, barking at his team-mates and the Brentford fans were gleefully predicting that Ten Hag would be “sacked tomorrow”. Thirteen minutes after United hit back, Ben Mee stooped to head in at the back post after Toney had been given time and space to head a corner across.
If that looked easy, the next thing was even easier. Jensen robbed Jadon Sancho in the box and released Toney, who then played in Bryan Mbeumo to slot in. United’s defense was completely absent as Brentford sailed through unchecked.
Ten Hag’s reaction at half-time was to remove the unhappy Martínez and Luke Shaw, as well as replace McTominay with Fred.
In came Tyrell Malacia and Raphaël Varane too, and United finally enjoyed some territory. Ronaldo’s first chance of the game came no further after, as did his second, both from Diogo Dalot crosses. However, the striker’s mood did not improve as he hit the grass in anger after heading over twice. To his credit, Ronaldo was often found dropping deep as 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 almost anonymous.
Eriksen forced the first save of the game from Brentford keeper David Raya with a weak header as Brentford settled back into their gaping lead. Jensen, Mbeumo and Dasilva left the pitch to a deserved standing ovation on a famous day, having orchestrated United’s first defeat since 1938 that will live long in the memory. For Ten Hag, and all those who hope Manchester United can one day be revived, it will undoubtedly last as a feverish nightmare, and a furious new low.