Man Utd draw with Tottenham proved five things to watching Sir Jim Ratcliffe

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The incoming Manchester United chief has his work cut out, even if there are some tentative signs of optimism.

If Sir Jim Ratcliffe was under any illusions as to just how complex a football club he is investing in, Manchester United’s 2-2 draw against Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday offered all the proof needed.

In the grand scheme of things, this was a relatively mundane Old Trafford fixture compared to what has gone before it this season. There were no full-time jeers as have accompanied the conclusion of so many games this season, not least losses to Bournemouth and Bayern Munich in the last six weeks, nor was there a stirring finish like those against Brentford, Copenhagen or Aston Villa.

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Yet, for 60 minutes it was a pulsating affair between two sides trying to outscore the other. In the end, both seemed relatively content with a point.

Ratcliffe, attending his first match since the agreement to become a minority shareholder was announced, watched alongside Sir Alex Ferguson in the directors’ box. The former manager’s presence will always be a reminder of United’s domineering past. So too, did Dimitar Berbatov’s return to Old Trafford, Tottenham’s former poster boy who simply could not turn down the opportunity of representing England’s biggest club when they came calling in 2008.

That’s not the case nowadays. Timo Werner, a player United were interested in, lining up for his Spurs debut was testament to that.

Berbatov’s four-year stint at Old Trafford saw him win two league titles, a League Cup and play in two Champions League finals, while only 12 men have scored more Premier League goals for United. Two of them also watched proceedings from the stands on Sunday: the recently unemployed Wayne Rooney, and Anthony Martial, another figure deemed ‘not fit’ for work by his manager on Friday.

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Ten Hag had claimed for four weeks that the French forward was ill, so his pivot to stating Martial is unable to play leaves fans scratching their heads as to what exactly is going on. It’s the sort of storyline only United seem capable of manufacturing, coming just days after Jadon Sancho’s acrimonious departure to Borussia Dortmund.

United were once pitched to Jurgen Klopp as an ‘adult Disneyland’, and with darts protegee Luke Littler in the crowd, along with comedian Amelia Dimoldenberg and Love Island’s Tomy Fury, a decade on from Ed Woodward’s bizarre boast it still seems relevant. But the man being mobbed for selfies post-match was a 71-year-old chemical engineering graduate. 

Ratcliffe opted to speak to local reporters before the game and cut a relaxed figure as he jokingly told the room upon arrival that he was ‘here to say nothing’, with the British billionaire unable to discuss details at this stage of proceedings. He did, however, reveal that his investment could be ratified by the Premier League by ‘early to mid-February’.

Ratcliffe addressed local reporters prior to the Tottenham match.Ratcliffe addressed local reporters prior to the Tottenham match.
Ratcliffe addressed local reporters prior to the Tottenham match.

His informal chat was more open and transparent than anything the Glazers have done during their 18-year premiership at United, and how those contrasting styles mesh remains the big uncertainty surrounding the club’s future.

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What must the Ineos lead shareholder have thought when the majority inside Old Trafford got to their feet to applaud chants of ‘stand up if you hate Glazers’ in the first half against Spurs? Ratcliffe’s ability to disentangle himself from the current regime could determine the success of the promising plans for his boyhood club.

Another personnel challenge lies in those on the pitch, and Antony’s introduction in the latter stages was booed by the home supporters. This time a year ago, Ten Hag was a universally popular figure with fans, now there are serious questions as to whether he’ll be the man at the helm when the Ineos era really begins at the start of the 2024/25 campaign.

Even the biggest Ten Hag apologist can’t deny that United’s ability to control games and dictate the flow of play is non-existent. Spurs had 64 percent on Sunday and three times as many shots on target, while United were reduced to a counter-attacking side. The threadbare midfield has been exposed repeatedly this season, and that’s purely down to Ten Hag’s approach.

United could be 10th by the time they next play in the league and this still has the potential to be the worst campaign of the post-Ferguson era.

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Ten Hag's tactics have been questioned this season.Ten Hag's tactics have been questioned this season.
Ten Hag's tactics have been questioned this season.

And yet, there are some undeniable positives for United, who welcomed back Lisandro Martinez and Casemiro on Sunday, while Harry Maguire, Victor Lindelof, Luke Shaw, Tyrell Malacia, Sofyan Amrabat and Mason Mount could all be back for the next game.

Ten Hag once again referenced the impact of not being able to select a regular XI when speaking after the game, while pointing to another positive, that his forwards appear to have finally found their shooting boots.

“When the front players are not scoring it’s going through the whole team. It makes everyone insecure, starting with the front players. It makes them eager when they’re not scoring, they play with less confidence. 

“Also in defending every goal we concede is a problem. But we know when we can put out [Alejandro] Garnacho, [Rasmus] Hojlund, [Marcus] Rashford and behind have Bruno [Fernandes] and Eriksen [Eriksen] we must be a threat.”

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More by accident than design, but Ten Hag has stumbled upon his best front three, with Garnacho out right, Rashford on the opposite wing and Hojlund up top. The latter’s goal against Spurs was his second in as many Old Trafford appearances, while Rashford has netted in consecutive league matches for the first time since February.

The ability to battle with a relentless Tottenham side is an improvement in itself. Building on the defensively solid display at Anfield, and the deserved wins over Chelsea, Aston Villa and Wigan Athletic in recent weeks. That three of the four best team performances this season have come since the start of December suggests things are on an upward trajectory.

United have also trimmed the squad of unwanted fat, with Sergio Reguilon, Donny van de Beek and Sancho no longer first-team options, and more are expected to depart this month. A European exit and a reduced fixture schedule should also improve the league form over the second half of the season.

For now, it’s just tentative signs of positivity rather than a genuine belief this United team have drastically improved. With Ratcliffe keeping an ever-watchful eye, Ten Hag has his work cut out.

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