Manchester United are in crisis. There can be little doubt about that. Beyond the bare 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 tattered. He will need to be an exceptional manager, a man of considerable moral courage, to recover from this.
Beads of sweat on his bare head, the London sun beat down on the Dutchman as Brentford tore United asunder, gleefully taking 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-derided immediate predecessor. The wrongs of last season are leagues away from being righted. Too many misfits and transfer busts, and though fans may bay 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 yet deeper was reflected by continuing protests against the Glazer ownership in the away end, though the absentee Floridian billionaires were not on the pitch during the first two matches of the season. Neither did they pick a team that operated as uninterested satellites from each other. At Brentford there was plenty of blame to go around, and a snarling Cristiano Ronaldo was only too happy to level it.
The selection of Ronaldo was logical in the sense that United had nobody else fit and capable of playing as a striker. Picking someone who wishes to leave the club appeared somewhat less logical. At least there would be no repeat of his pouting on the bench, as seen last week against Brighton. Instead Scott McTominay was the sole player to be dropped from an opening-weekend disappointment that now resembles a happy memory.
Alongside McTominay’s erstwhile partner in crime, Fred, Eriksen adopted the deep central midfield role from which he helped haul Brentford to safety last season, with notably less success. A vocal minority of home fans were in unforgiving mood for his choice of Manchester over west London: his early touches were booed and there were hearty reminders of the scoreline as Brentford racked up their first-half goals.
Eriksen’s heir apparent for club and country, Mikkel Damsgaard, a breakout star of 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 rescued a point at Leicester last Sunday. Despite the baking heat Brentford played their usual athletic game, pressing hard and making full use of set pieces. They were offered plenty of the latter thanks to United’s persistent fouling and utter desperation as their fragilities were brutally exposed.
Dasilva’s opener came through Brentford’s aggression and United’s submissiveness. Mathias Jensen easily robbed Ronaldo, and the ball spilled into a space from which a speculative shot could be tried. De Gea might 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 goalkeeper buried his head in the turf in a familiar fashion.
De Gea was not alone in his ineptitude. Far from it. Harry Maguire was only saved from a red card when bringing down Ivan Toney because Martínez was just about on the crime scene. Maguire was bailing out an error in possession from Eriksen. The midfielder’s next mistake would be more costly. As United uncomfortably attempted to play out from a goal-kick, Eriksen was played into trouble by Martínez. Jensen stole in, righted himself and calmly stroked home.
Just 18 minutes had been played and Ronaldo was raging, barking at his teammates, and Brentford fans were joyously predicting Ten Hag would be “sacked in the morning”. Thirteen minutes after that United folded again, Ben Mee stooping to head in at the back post after Toney had been granted time and space to nod a corner across.
If that looked easy, the next was even simpler. Jensen robbed Jadon Sancho in the box and released Toney, who then played in Bryan Mbeumo to slot home. United’s defence was completely absent as Brentford sailed through unchecked.
Ten Hag’s half-time reaction was to remove the hapless Martínez and Luke Shaw, as well as swap McTominay back in for Fred.
In came Tyrell Malacia and Raphaël Varane, too, and United at last enjoyed some territory. Ronaldo’s first chance of the game came not longer after, as did his second, both from Diogo Dalot crosses. The forward’s mood did not improve, however, as he beat the turf in anger after heading over twice. To his credit, Ronaldo was often found dropping deep as he attempted to make something – anything – happen, perhaps hoping to rescue his own evening with a goal. Anthony Elanga was introduced for Sancho, who had been all-but anonymous.
Eriksen forced the first save of the match from the Brentford goalkeeper, David Raya, with a weak header, as Brentford sat back on their gaping advantage. Jensen, Mbeumo and Dasilva left the field to deserved standing ovations on a famous day, having orchestrated a first defeat of United since 1938 that will live long in the memory. For Ten Hag, and all those hoping Manchester United can one day revive, it will doubtless linger as a fevered nightmare, and a crashing new low.