Now United again feel a mess, with Ten Hag unable to control everything from the mildly ridiculous to the more harrowing. When Anthony Martial appeared to turn up several hours early for training on Thursday, it was a harmless irrelevance, but sadly typical at United right now; it also prompted the thought that Martial’s timing has been poor for quite some time. But while Martial’s de facto replacement, and Ten Hag’s £72m striker Rasmus Hojlund faces comparisons that are both inevitable and unfair with Harry Kane on Wednesday, Ten Hag’s costliest buy will be missing.
Antony’s leave of absence stems from serious allegations of assault by three women, which he denies but which follows United’s aborted attempt to bring back Mason Greenwood. That prompted suggestions they had mislaid their moral compass. Thus far, Ten Hag has been more critical of the banished Jadon Sancho than Antony.
Without both, United lost to Brighton, whose starting 11 cost £17m, about 20 per cent of Antony’s fee; Ten Hag’s chosen 11 came in at £347m and his explanation that prices are inflated when United come calling scarcely accounted for the differential. Last week, statistics from the CIES Football Observatory showed United have the most expensive squad in world football, at almost £1bn.
But the two most dearest members of the current squad are unavailable; the third priciest, Hojlund, has nine senior goals in major European leagues to his name. VAR denied him a strike on his full debut against Brighton which could have relieved some of the pressure conferred by the price tag. The young Dane has at least offered some encouragement in his first two appearances; the boos that greeted his substitution were the first indication Ten Hag’s decisions are being disputed by the crowd.
The other 2023 arrivals have had troubled starts. Mason Mount may be back for Bayern but his opening two games suggested he was miscast in midfield. Evans came on against Arsenal and, while it was not entirely his fault, United soon conceded twice. Sergio Reguilon had a difficult debut against Brighton and could be sent out to face Bayern’s band of wingers. Andre Onana has passed the ball well but conceded 10 goals in his last four games. A patched-up, slipshod rearguard is the major cause but Raphael Varane is unlikely to feature on Wednesday; Luke Shaw definitely won’t.
An increasing liability is another of Ten Hag’s flagship signings, a second former Ajax player he pushed for. Lisandro Martinez has been lamentably poor this season; alongside him, Victor Lindelof has been substandard while Ten Hag’s reluctance to tell Harry Maguire to leave means the alternative is a player the fans have mocked and who he rarely trusts.
At the start of the season, the other major defensive issue came in an open midfield where Casemiro started to look isolated and immobile. On Saturday, after a change of shape to compensate for Antony’s absence, a diamond midfield left the full-backs exposed. Brighton capitalised. Bayern’s first team were famous for their wingers in Ten Hag’s day, in Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery. Now they possess other potent threats from the flanks. Now United have lost to the three best sides they have faced this season and head to one who hope Kane’s signing will make them the finest in Europe.
Ten Hag’s first return to Bayern was as an underdog who excelled, earning Ajax a draw, taking them to the Champions League semi-finals. United would surely settle for both of those outcomes. But for the success story from Bayern Munich II’s dugout, the fear may be that Bayern’s first team compound and capitalise on the problems at United.
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