A penny for the thoughts of Erik ten Hag. If the Dutchman has any doubts about what he’s getting himself into then Manchester United’s executives might be wise not to pick up the phone to him for the next few days.
The 52-year-old will be making his judgements on the squad over the final weeks of the season but he should have seen everything he needed on another desperate day at Goodison Park.
If Ten Hag was looking to compile a list of players who have the character and the personality to survive life at Old Trafford then he wouldn’t have needed to pick his pen up all afternoon. This was as abject as it gets in a season that might well be the worst of the nine in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era.
Yet for 27 minutes Goodison Park had felt like a tinderbox, one decisive United attack from erupting in a fury of anger towards the home team.
This was never going to be a contest for the purist. It was a battle between two weak teams who with eight games to go are struggling to meet the very minimum expectations of them this season.
Everton’s midweek defeat at Turf Moor ended any notion that they are too good to go down and United started the weekend looking at potential Europa Conference League opponents for next season. It’s been absolutely abject from both teams.
But discontent is never far from the surface at Goodison Park and as United began to take a stranglehold on proceedings in the first half it felt like the locals were looking for a reason to turn on their team.
Every misplaced Allan pass was met with a groan, every time Dominic Calvert-Lewin was outjumped ignited anger. The Evertonians were not happy and that was music to the ears of United.
To turn that Goodison grumpiness into outright hostility all they needed to do was score, but twice Marcus Rashford was denied by Jordan Pickford, and when Everton finally strung a few passes together they got the slice of luck teams in a relegation battle require.
Once Anthony Gordon’s shot had deflected in off Harry Maguire the United players visibly shrank. They never again looked as good as they did in the opening exchanges of this match, while it was still level. They were outbattled by an Everton team that just looked hungrier and for a professional footballer that is as damning as it gets.
In his criticism of the physicality of his players, Ralf Rangnick has been careful not to question their mentality, but it’s been a fair debate this season. They haven’t looked like a United team, only occasionally up for the battle, heads dropping at the first sign of a setback.
Talent isn’t the problem here, this is clearly a better team than those at Arsenal and Tottenham, but moulding those technical gifts into a coherent system has been a problem, as has showing the requisite character to succeed at Old Trafford. Once again they failed that test.
This was the day United’s season effectively came to an end. A week ago Rangnick was hoping the international break would act as a “reset” for his beleaguered squad, but entirely predictably they have taken one point from a possible six against Leicester City and Everton and before the Easter eggs have been cracked open they have nothing left to play for.
The search for the next permanent manager has focused on what United want and who they need, but a manager like Ten Hag whose stock is at an all-time high should be eyeing this job with extreme caution. The rebuilding job is absolutely enormous and it will begin without the lustre or the lucre that the Champions League offers.
If he does believe he’s the man to bring back some prestige to this football club then the players who have waved the white flag on this season should be feeling very nervous indeed.
The final hour at Goodison was a performance lacking character and substance. Talent is worthless without the heart and the desire to make the most of it and that is an area where this squad is lacking.
Those players would have been cursing the Goodison Park set-up that forces them to depart the pitch via a different exit, one next to the away end. When the best away fans in the country are launching smoke bombs towards their own players then you know this is about as toxic as it gets.
Ten Hag now knows what he will be getting himself into. Now, how does the Europa Conference League work?
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