Erik ten Hag will inherit a broken dressing room culture beset by internal rivalries, with a level of distrust between the players that has shocked those involved at Manchester United.
Whilst Ralf Rangnick admitted in his press conference of Friday that the team had lacked team spirit, mentality and togetherness, privately there are those at United who judge the situation much more gravely.
The low point in a season of fractures came in the run-up to the Manchester derby in March. With a trepidatious trip to the Etihad on the horizon, given United had been so badly beaten at Old Trafford, one player chose that as the time to voice his uncomplimentary thoughts about Harry Maguire to a newspaper.
Erik ten Hag is set to inherit a broken dressing room at Manchester United this summer
Harry Maguire has been questioned by his team-mates for his performances this term
The report stated the United captain had been ‘privately questioned’ by members of the squad who felt his ‘performances have not met the club’s standards.’ There was little disputing the assessment: Maguire has had a wretched season.
Nor was there any issue with the veracity of the report in that it clearly came from a player. But the attack was thinly veiled and most players and the coaching team believe they know the identity of the anonymous Maguire critic.
The timing was astonishing, the article published two days before the City game, which inevitably would end badly for United, thrashed 4-1 and barely getting a touch in the second half.
And the effect was poisonous. There is understandably a level of distrust between team-mates that will be hard to rebuild, spreading like a virus, spreading exponentially with senior management unhappy with the player they believed to be behind the report, given that he himself is not exempt from blame for an awful season.
If it had been an isolated incident, it would have been manageable. But there have been several instances. The briefing against Maguire was just the worst example of the fall out between individuals.
To some at the club it feels as though players have sensed the power vacuum and exploited it, whilst diving for cover in the blame game as the season unravels. It would be unimaginable for one of Jurgen Klopp or Pep Guardiola’s players or their agents to brief in this way at present.
Ralf Rangnick’s training methods have not been popular with some players
The discontent in the dressing room is hardly a secret. Paul Scholes said recently: ‘I had a quick chat with Jesse [Lingard] the other day and I’m sure he won’t mind me saying he said the dressing room is just a disaster.’ That came after the 3-1 defeat at Arsenal, which came after the 4-0 defeat at Liverpool.
Juan Mata, one of many players featuring for the last time today, hinted at something similar in his interview with The Athletic yesterday: ‘We need a reset in the culture of the club.
The standards, what it means to represent this club to any player, what entitles you to play for Manchester United, what is expected on the pitch and off. Many things need to be clear — this is Manchester United and anyone who doesn’t meet those standards is not up to the task and should not be here. That’s as clear as I can be.
‘Certain standards were not met. Whether that’s attitude, training, off the pitch, which doesn’t include players, we haven’t been good enough.’
His team selections have also come under scrutiny during his interim period in charge
Rangnick met with senior players throughout to try to put things right. Some sensible suggestions were forthcoming. One player told Rangnick that if he picked his team earlier in the week and they spent more time working in the shape it might help. However, that was immediately countered by another player whose view was that training should just be fun.
There was ultimately no way of reconciling those extremes. There will be competing pressures on Ten Hag as to how to run the club and there has been resistance from some to heavyweight, demanding tactical sessions. Given Rangnick’s style demands that kind of work and players assembled aren’t suitable for the intensity he demands, United were perhaps bound to look a team designed by a committee, a squad assembled by four different managers, each with their own style. But Ten Hag’s philosophy also requires attention to detail, tactical sessions and intensity so getting buy-in from the squad will be his first challenge.
Another sentiment voiced by senior players was that the club had too many Instagram players, conscious of image over achievement. How much that was just a gripe of an older generation and how much it reflects a genuine psychological weakness in elite sports start is a moot point. But it was a genuinely held point of view.
What is clear from sources at the club is the season was doomed from the start. The decision to bring Cristiano Ronaldo back has dominated every twist and turn. It was obvious to any observer that under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer the previous season they had a clearer idea of what was expected and how they would play which at times looked effective. That disappeared with Ronaldo’s arrival. That can’t only be blamed on Ronaldo but clearly a side built around a 37-year-old would have to compensate by doing more running than normal, which hasn’t happened. It seems that some players don’t buy into the concept of running extra to accommodate their superstar.
Cristiano Ronaldo has cut a frustrated figure for much of the season at Old Trafford
At every turn, it has seemed that insurmountable hurdles conspired to obstruct Rangnick. Mason Greenwood was initially his favourite player. He is now suspended due to his arrest on rape, assault and threatening to kill. His departure extenuated issues in attack, where Marcus Rashford has stagnated, Jadon Sancho has impressed only in bits and Edinson Cavani has had to commute to Uruguay.
The German was blindsided by the decision of Michael Carrick to leave. He had been relying on Carrick and fellow coach Kieran McKenna to be alongside him. And without the authority of a long-term manager, it has been impossible for Rangnick to be himself. In effect, the Premier League has seen a diluted version of Rangnick, where compromise has become the watchword for a man for whom that would ordinarily be anathema.
The baton passes now to Ten Hag, who has flown into London to view the final game of the season at Crystal Palace. United were in seventh when Rangnick arrived and will finish either sixth or seventh today. That is the size of Ten Hag’s task. The club is in stasis.