Rather than starting his first programme notes as a Premier League manager with a greeting of any sort, Erik ten Hag issued a short, sharp mantra to which his Manchester United must now adhere to.
“Today we begin a new season and a new story,” the Dutchman proclaimed, eager to drum home that his goal is to start again from the beginning.
Yet, the first chapter to Ten Hag’s tale had a familiar ring to it, and hardly whetted the appetite for what is to come. One substandard area of the pitch in particular, a position that has been the crux of the problem for far too long, was again a major contributor to another limp United defeat as Brighton, for the second time in three months, put their opponents to the sword.
There was ill-feeling in the air around Old Trafford even before the match got under way, with fans protesting in their hundreds against the Glazer family ownership.
A large, angry group wielding flares and banners camped outside the entrance to the director’s box chanting “we want our club back”, but after 40 minutes of this new dawn, co-owner and public enemy No 1 Avram Glazer, making a surprise appearance in the stands, must have been trying to hand the keys over to anyone who would take them.
Two first-half goals from Pascal Gross – only Mohamed Salah has more Premier League strikes against United than the German forward – both brought about after bypassing the United midfield as if it wasn’t there, did the damage. Groundhog Day in Manchester.
It has been obvious for years, even when the club seemed on the way back to something like their former grandeur under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, that a midfield consisting only of Fred and Scott McTominay, or McFred as they are affectionately or mockingly known, depending on who is using the label, is not good enough for a club of United’s stature.
In their own right, Fred and McTominay are decent players. Fred has 27 Brazilian caps, often keeping numerous other high-profile Premier League stars out of the side, while McTominay is one of Scotland’s leading lights.
As a midfield two, however, they just do not cut it at this level. Put Fabinho in between them, or have Rodri sit as an anchor behind the pair and they could be much more productive. Without anyone to protect and guide them, they may as well not be there, and they weren’t for 45 minutes in the Old Trafford sunshine.
The most telling stat of the contest was that Brighton’s defensive midfielder, Moises Caicedo made four tackles in the match, whereas McFred didn’t muster a single one between them.
United have been desperately trying to persuade Frenkie De Jong that all is not that bad in Manchester, with the club’s chief executive, Richard Arnold, and director of football, John Murtough, having travelled to Spain twice to try to broker a deal, but nothing has yet materialised.
It is understood that De Jong does not want the move, preferring to stay in Barcelona or move to Chelsea, to remain in the Champions League.
Ten Hag is desperate to bring in his fellow countryman, and will be even more so after defeat on his United bow, but the Dutchman has to take some blame for the club’s inability to add a long overdue defensive midfielder into the mix, as his fixation on De Jong has meant other avenues have not been explored. And time is running out.
United improved in the second half, especially with the introduction of Cristiano Ronaldo off the bench, but it was too little, too late.
Put simply, if again left with McFred as the only option in central midfield, Ten Hag’s revolution won’t even get off the ground. The next few weeks in the transfer market will decide whether United are serious about backing their new manager to even get them back on the straight and narrow.