What has gone wrong at Manchester United? Gary Neville threw that question to his colleagues in the studio during Monday Night Football as Jamie Carragher and Roy Keane discussed the “catastrophic fall” and how long it might take Erik ten Hag to turn the club around.
“It is a question really for the lads, I have been asked it a few times and said that I haven’t got a clue what has gone wrong really at Manchester United this season. The first task for me really is to find out what has gone wrong.
“Why has this catastrophic fall occurred?
“Why has this team that finished second last season, 10 to 12 points behind City, found themselves where they are? I still can’t put my finger on that. Surely that is something that Ten Hag has to deal with first and foremost?”
Carragher pointed to the noises coming out of the dressing room.
“I think it is really interesting hearing stories about how toxic the dressing room is. Under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, there was something about Manchester United. They were nowhere near as good as Liverpool or City, but they looked like decent lads, a decent group.
“But the things that keep coming out about what is going on inside the club, who is that and where does it come from? It doesn’t seem like those things were coming out in the last two seasons under Ole. The supporters were behind him.
“He was never at the level of Jurgen Klopp or Pep Guardiola and was never going to overtake them, but it felt like something was just building. He was getting to semi-finals, getting closer.
“Roy keeps talking about dressing rooms to me. We were not talking about that in the last two seasons. It feels like we have been talking about it a lot this season.”
Keane reiterated the importance of character.
“If you have not got a decent dressing room, forget about it, you are in trouble anyway,” said the former United captain.
“Whatever about the talent and the board room and who the manager is, you have to have a decent dressing room, decent personalities, decent characters.
“We have seen Manchester United through the season, when things have gone against them, that is it, they throw the towel in. That is a bad reflection on the players – the senior players and the younger ones who think they have made it and are players.”
Cristiano Ronaldo, Raphael Varane and Jadon Sancho were signed last summer with many expecting to see an improvement. Instead, the opposite happened.
Was their arrival part of the problem, perhaps?
“That is the only thing you can point to,” said Neville. “You can point towards Ole reaching his height and they could not go any further and they got, not sick of the message, but it had become stale and they did not believe he could overtake Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola.
“Or something had disrupted that changing room. They had put the wrong ingredient into the dish and it has made it completely go sour. That is the bit that has to be dealt with because these players are not as bad as the points tally that is on that board.
“They are better than that. There is something deeper that is wrong in that dressing room that is making them play the way they are and get the results they are getting.”
Can Man Utd bridge the gap to the top?
The task ahead of Ten Hag is not just to climb the table but ultimately to close what has become a vast gap to the teams chasing the Premier League title.
For the third season in four, United are likely to finish more than 25 points behind the champions. Perusing the list of deficits since Sir Alex Ferguson last delivered the title in 2013, Keane stressed that the quality of the opposition is a big problem for United.
“It is ugly, that,” said Keane. “Whatever way you look at it, it is not good. We know it is a long way back for Manchester United but of course there is a way back. Maybe the new manager coming is a good time because I always think, you cannot get any worse.
“It is the points tally that worries me because they are so far behind. Even last season Ole finishing second and you’re thinking he’s doing well, there is such a big gap. The biggest problem for Manchester United is where Manchester City are, where Liverpool are.
“We talk about Manchester United rebuilding as if Liverpool and Manchester City are going to take it easy over the summer. They are going to invest, they are going to get players in, they are going to get stronger. Klopp is staying on, Pep might stay on.
“When he comes in they have to get the recruitment right, he has to get players in and the right players through the door because the last few years just have not been good enough.
“The biggest disappointment for me when they have had these disappointments is the reaction. I don’t think they have shown the leadership. Whatever about talent, there are not enough characters in that dressing room.”
Is Klopp the template for Ten Hag?
Could the example of Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool provide the template for Ten Hag in terms of expectations and the timeframe in which the new man might have United challenging again?
Carragher believes so.
“I think it is very similar, it really is,” he explained. “I think it was possibly a harder job for Jurgen Klopp because the funds are there for the next Manchester United manager. We have seen that over the last 10 years and going forward will be a lot more than what Klopp had when he first came in.
“People talk about how long it should take Ten Hag or any top manager at a top club. There is talk of Liverpool and Manchester City possibly being five years ahead, I have even heard 10 years ahead of Manchester United. I think it is rubbish, I really do.
“I think a top manager gets a top club back on track in a couple of years. That is not to say winning the title or the Champions League but they get them back on track where they are competing.
“Liverpool came in November and they finished eighth in his first season. In some ways it would probably be better for United if they finished eighth and there was no European football.
“But they still reached a Europa League final, beat Manchester United on the way, some top teams, Villarreal, Borussia Dortmund, you thought there was something happening.
“In that second season, the first full season, he got Champions League. That has to be what Manchester United get next season under Ten Hag. He has to.
“Liverpool were back on track in that third season. All great clubs should be judged on the Premier League and the Champions League. Not necessarily winning it but in with a shout.
“That is where Liverpool come in, they were Champions League runners-up in season three. They go on to win it and then win the Premier League but they are back at the party in year three. That is why I think the talk of five years or more is a nonsense.”
Neville rejects the idea that Klopp had it harder than Ten Hag.
“I don’t think so. Jurgen Klopp has done the most outrageous job at Liverpool, it has been outstanding. But there were no real set winners at that time when he came in.
“I would liken the job that Ten Hag has coming in and taking on these two outstanding managers who have set foundations at their clubs for five years more like Gerard Houllier’s job when he came in and Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger were set.
“You are coming in when there are two or three managers – because I could put Thomas Tuchel in there as well – are set in their jobs and have that foundation. I think the job that Ten Hag has is absolutely huge.”
But Neville accepts the timeframe suggested by Carragher.
“I don’t disagree with Jamie’s timeline of Champions League [qualification] in the first two seasons while he is sorting the recruitment out and getting used to the club. Third season getting very close to the point where the club has confidence and winning a trophy maybe.
“And that fourth year and fifth year is where you want to be winning a title, that is what we are looking at realistically. We would all hope he comes in and blows everyone away and Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola blow up somehow. But they are not blowing up are they?”
Even so, Keane thinks Ten Hag will back himself to have a big impact.
“Any top coach would come in with a bit of an ego and believe they can make a difference – certainly to this group,” said Keane. “They can’t get any worse next season, surely? They can maybe win a cup or whatever and rebuild the club.
“Any top manager will believe he can get a reaction from the players and he will get backing. It might take a couple of windows but a good manager will believe that he can turn things around pretty quickly. Not in terms of winning trophies, but competing.
“The fans and the club have to get confidence in this new manager. Over the last few years, there have been doubts about Mourinho’s style, Van Gaal, David Moyes, Ole. When he comes in, he needs proper support and that power he deserves to get.”
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