Ten Hag leaves Ratcliffe with more questions as Man United stumble

MANCHESTER — Erik ten Hag knows he is now in the survival phase of his career as Manchester United manager, and his reaction to Scott McTominay’s stoppage-time miss in the 2-2 draw against Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford was proof of his vulnerability in front of the man who will soon be his boss: Sir Jim Ratcliffe.

Ten Hag threw his hands in the air and then put his head in them. McTominay was unmarked, 6 yards out, as he jumped to head Alejandro Garnacho’s cross into the net to make it 3-2. But the Scotland midfielder sent his effort high over Guglielmo Vicario’s crossbar and the win that Ten Hag desperately needed evaporated, leaving United with one point from a game in which they had twice taken the lead.

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United and Ten Hag have had plenty of setbacks this season, of course. That’s why they sit in seventh position in the Premier League, eight points adrift of the top four and 13 points behind leaders Liverpool.

But while all of the previous stumbles were played out against a backdrop of uncertainty about the club’s ownership and a punishing injury list, Sunday marked a change of direction for United and Ten Hag.

Ratcliffe was watching United for the first time since confirmation of his £1.3 billion investment to take a 25% stake of the club last month — the deal still has to be ratified by the Premier League — and his presence alongside Sir Alex Ferguson in the directors’ box signalled the imminent changes to be made at the club, which will see the billionaire and his associates take over football operations at United from the Glazer family, who will retain a majority stake as owners.

Ratcliffe wants to sharpen up United’s scouting and recruitment, and that is surely music to Ten Hag’s ears, but if the former Ajax coach is to benefit from the new structure he has to fulfill his side of the bargain by showing progress in terms of results and performances on the pitch. After the draw against Tottenham, he will have left Ratcliffe with more questions than answers.

Questions such as: How did United manage just 36% possession in a home game? Why select the limited right-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka at left-back? Why was teenager Kobbie Mainoo repeatedly exposed as holding midfielder while more-experienced teammates watched on? And, ultimately, how has a team containing so many talented and expensive players won just 10 of 21 league games this season?

Tottenham were able to equalise twice, through Richarlison and Rodrigo Bentancur, because of poor defending by United. But they are by no means the first team to take advantage of that particular shortcoming in Ten Hag’s side.

United are a team of “moments players” — those capable of flashes of brilliance, but rarely the more mundane requirements of industry and teamwork. At times against Spurs, they got in each other’s way, lost possession with careless and lazy flicks and failed to spot simple passes. But Rasmus Hojlund opened the scoring with an unstoppable left-footed shot and then created Marcus Rashford’s goal with a rare display of understanding as he played a neat one-two with the England forward. Highs and lows.

Ten Hag, however, is supposed to bring it all together and iron out the flaws. That is his job as manager, but he continually fails to do so and that is what will concern Ratcliffe.

In the opposite technical area, Spurs manager Ange Postecoglou found a way to overcome his team twice, falling behind despite being without key players including leading scorer Son Heung-min, top creator James Maddison and the tricky winger Dejan Kulusevski.

Postecoglou’s side look like a team. No matter who plays or who is missing, they have a way of playing, a style, and it is why they have over-performed this season. Don’t forget that Postecoglou also saw Harry Kane leave the club for Bayern Munich this summer, denying him the services of one of the world’s greatest strikers.

Ten Hag has shown precious little of Postecoglou’s ability to deal with adversity and that is another reason why he needs to step it up to convince Ratcliffe that he should have a future as United manager. But for weeks now, the Dutchman has said that results and performances will improve when injured players return.

Against Spurs, Lisandro Martínez made his first appearance since September and Casemiro was in the squad for the first time since the beginning of November. Harry Maguire and Mason Mount are also back in training and could be involved in the FA Cup fourth round tie against Newport or Eastleigh in two weeks. So the mitigating factors are beginning to disappear — clarity and stability is arriving in the boardroom and the treatment room is starting to empty.

It’s time for Ten Hag to deliver, because Ratcliffe needs reasons to believe he is the right man for the job.

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