MANCHESTER, England — “Today we begin a new season and a new story,” Erik ten Hag wrote in his programme notes ahead of his first official game as Manchester United manager. Except it wasn’t a new story at all. In fact, it was more of the same. After ending last season with seven defeats from their last 12 games to sink to sixth in the Premier League table, Man United began the new campaign with another; this time 2-1 at home to Brighton.
After the positivity of this first summer under the Dutchman, it was a harsh reality check for those who turned up at Old Trafford hopeful of witnessing the start of a new era of success. Ten Hag may yet bring back the trophies supporters crave, but Brighton offered a warning that he is in for a rough ride.
“It is a hell of a job,” he said after becoming the second manager post-Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013 to lose his first game in charge. He’s not joking, either — after a shambolic first half against Brighton during which Pascal Gross scored twice, Brentford away next weekend suddenly looks very daunting for a rookie manager and squad who appear to have the confidence of a fish riding a bicycle.
Ten Hag alluded to this idea afterwards, insisting that the self-belief of his players had evaporated after what he thought had been a decent opening against Graham’s Potter’s side, though that observation did ignore how Leandro Trossard missed a good chance for the visitors inside 15 seconds.
“I think it was a good start and then after we dropped down a level, dropped down in belief,” said Ten Hag. “I can understand that after last year, but it’s not necessary, because they are good players. Self-belief is from yourself, bring it on the pitch. I knew it could happen, but I think we should have done better, that’s clear, but also it will not come overnight.”
Perhaps it should be no surprise that United looked just as vulnerable as they did last season given that it is largely the same team. New signings Christian Eriksen and Lisandro Martinez started against Brighton with a third, Tyrell Malacia, on the bench, but Ten Hag is still woefully short of options in midfield and up front. United have made Frenkie de Jong their top midfield target this offseason, but the Dutch international is still at Barcelona, and in his absence, Ten Hag was forced to pick Fred and Scott McTominay as the duo in midfield. Both had days to forget — McTominay in particular was perhaps lucky to escape a red card for a first-half challenge — and both were substituted in the second half.
Ten Hag was asked in his post-match news conference whether he regretted the system he picked, but he replied pointedly: “If a striker was available, I would have played him.”
He is a good coach — his record at Ajax is proof — but he is not a magician. While Manchester City, Arsenal have all strengthened over the summer, you can argue that United’s squad is now weaker — particularly in terms of numbers — after the departures of Paul Pogba, Edinson Cavani, Jesse Lingard, Nemanja Matic and Juan Mata. When United needed a goal against Brighton, Ten Hag had to turn to 18-year-old Alejandro Garnacho.
Sources have told ESPN there have been talks to sign former Stoke and West Ham striker Marko Arnautovic from Bologna after Ten Hag identified the need for a forward who would be content to be used an option off the bench. Ten Hag knows the Austrian international from their time together at FC Twente and is a fan of the 33-year-old’s character and presence in the dressing room. Negotiations are also ongoing with Red Bull Salzburg regarding 19-year-old forward Benjamin Sesko, and it is vital at least one attacker arrives before the transfer deadline on Sept. 1.
By then, United will hope to have wrapped up the signing of De Jong, but the Dutchman remains locked in a battle to recover deferred wages from Barcelona. Equally, there are persistent rumours from his side that he would prefer to join Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain or Bayern Munich if he’s ultimately forced out at Camp Nou.
“I don’t go into names,” said Ten Hag when asked about the need for new players. “I think in this preseason maybe 250 players are linked with Man United.”
Just one or two before the deadline would do, though.
Ten Hag has accepted the task of writing United’s next success story, but he can’t do it on his own. With the same players as last season, he ran into the same problems faced by Ralf Rangnick and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer before him and, maybe predictably, was left to answer questions about a familiar result.
Questions, though, need to be asked of the club around him and why, with just weeks to go before the close of the transfer window, they are still scrabbling around for players. Without them, United’s new era is still waiting for lift-off.