Erik ten Hag’s Man Utd are inept and chaotic – Sir Jim Ratcliffe must put him out of his misery

Sir Jim Ratcliffe, sitting next to fellow Manchester United co-owner Avram Glazer, holds his face in his hands
Sir Jim Ratcliffe, sitting next to fellow Manchester United co-owner Avram Glazer, looks horrified as his team flounder against second-tier Coventry - Alamy Live News/Mark Pain

Having just run the London Marathon in 4hr 30min 52sec at the age of 71, Sir Jim Ratcliffe was perfectly entitled to collapse in a heap. Instead, he watched his Manchester United players do it for him. Never, as he enjoyed a restorative post-race ice bath at the Royal Automobile Club on Pall Mall, could the richest man in Britain have imagined that the most painful part of his Sunday was still to come.

But this has become the way of his perpetually dysfunctional club, where, even in a scarcely-deserved win that threatened to scar Coventry City fans for life, they managed to plumb fresh depths of ineptitude and chaos.

The expression of Ratcliffe, sitting beside the rarely-spotted Avram Glazer in the VIP seats, conveyed either bewilderment or a silent scream of despair that he had ever agreed on custody of such a horror show. While he has known for months about the deep internal fault lines at United, and while he has pleaded with supporters to show patience, this is the moment that his much-vaunted ruthlessness as a businessman must come to the fore.

United’s season might limp on for five more weeks, to an FA Cup final with Manchester City, but for hapless manager Erik ten Hag there can be no way back.

Erik ten Hag looks downbeat
Erik ten Hag appears to be a dead man walking at Old Trafford

The Dutchman’s situation, long precarious, is now unconscionable. There should be no mitigation for United, with a £200 million annual wage bill eclipsing Coventry’s 20-fold, contriving to throw away a 3-0 lead against a Championship side who had lost three of their previous four. Their humiliation was almost starker still, but for the accursed VAR ruling out a 121st-minute Coventry winner after Haji Wright’s toenail was ruled offside.

Be in no doubt, that outcome would have been celebrated by far more than the 36,000 supporters in sky-blue, toasted as a triumph of perseverance and graft over entitlement and waste.

Remarkably, Ten Hag wanted to talk up United’s “big achievement” in reaching the final for a second year running, oblivious to the impression that he was a dead man walking. This was a match where the status gap between the teams left no option but for his players to win emphatically, and with flair.

All the people deciding his future were here, from Ratcliffe and Sir Dave Brailsford, his go-to guru, to Avram and Joel Glazer, the brothers watching a United game together in-person for the first time since 2019. It felt like his last chance, which he flunked spectacularly. For after 71 minutes of relative control, he presided over unmitigated mayhem.

Yes, there were culprits on the pitch who deserved their share of blame. Marcus Rashford was so abject in his finishing that he was booed off by United fans. Rasmus Hojlund displayed all the toothlessness of a striker without a goal in two months. Aaron Wan-Bissaka, giving away a penalty and allowing Callum O’Hare’s shot to loop off him for Coventry’s second, encapsulated the defensive malaise.

But responsibility for this full-systems meltdown falls ultimately to Ten Hag. “Follow the process,” he has been fond of telling his critics, only for United to provide cast-iron proof that there is no process at all.

“You’re getting sacked in the morning,” taunted Coventry’s travelling band, crowing at Wright’s leveller for 3-3. In reality, Ratcliffe might be tempted to wait a little longer. United are 16 points adrift of Champions League qualification, and there is scant appetite for recruiting a caretaker who lasts only a month.

The looming prospect is that Ten Hag will be put out of his misery in similar fashion to his compatriot Louis van Gaal, who led United to success in the 2016 FA Cup final and found himself sacked 48 hours later. But where Van Gaal would often draw criticism for his autocratic leadership, the problem with Ten Hag is that he seldom looks like a leader of any kind.

Take Antony as an example. In 2022, Ten Hag was desperate to bring the Brazilian across from Ajax, lauding the winger’s “incredibly beautiful development”. United agreed to back their manager to the tune of £86 million, despite concerns that Antony had not reached double figures for goals in either of his two league campaigns in the Netherlands.

Today we see, all too vividly, why there was such trepidation. It is not just that Antony’s returns for United have been pathetic, with two goals and two assists all season. It is that he is a figure of such wretched arrogance that after Hojlund’s decisive penalty, he had the nerve to turn to the Coventry end and taunt those shattered fans by cupping his ears. After another dire turn as a substitute, it was his most memorable performance all day.

Not in a million years would a wastrel like Antony have been allowed through the door under Sir Alex Ferguson. So what does it say about Ten Hag’s judgement, about his instinct about what is best for United, that he persuades his employers to pay nearly a club-record fee for one of their worst ever players?

Faith among United’s disciples is waning. Even in the grim endgame of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign, they would merrily chant: “Ole’s at the wheel.” But there is nothing to celebrate in the spectacle of Ten Hag driving this clown car of a team.

The reaction in the aftermath of the penalty shoot-out was unmistakeable: far from crowing, most fans in red offered nothing more than a murmur of relief, embarrassed at standards having slipped so low that they required a VAR reprieve to squeak past Coventry.

It is not a decline that Ratcliffe, with his record as a captain of industry, can abide. Once the stress of this marathon day wears off, he should waste no time in determining that Ten Hag’s race is run.

An Anatomy of Manchester United’s extraordinary collapse

By Mike McGrath

It was one of the most spectacular collapses in FA Cup history. How did Manchester United go from 3-0 up against a Championship team to ending up, in the space of less than half an hour, going to extra-time at Wembley?

Garnacho substitution changes momentum

It looked like everything was going in United’s favour when Sir Jim Ratcliffe sat down in his Wembley seat. United’s co-owner had completed the London Marathon in four-and-a-half hours and arrived to see his team add their third goal. But small moments can shift the emotion of the game and that was the case when Alejandro Garnacho was taken off in the 66th minute.

The Argentina forward was clearly not happy as he trudged off at walking speed, shaking his head. His handshake with Erik ten Hag was cursory. Only a few days ago he had apologised for “liking” a social-media post saying the manager had thrown him under the bus. It may have been only the smallest of morale-boosts for Coventry, but it was a lift nonetheless.

Garnacho  comes off
Alejandro Garnacho came off with Man Utd leading 3-0 - Getty Images/Ian Kington

Coventry get some hope

Ellis Simms has been in good form heading into this semi-final, with 14 goals in 13 games, and his finish to make it 3-1 pointed to a player full of confidence. He had come close in the first half when he was so close to a tap-in and only denied by Diogo Dalot’s superb block. To reduce the deficit in the 71st minute he took Fabio Tavares’ cross first time on the volley, sweeping it home at Andre Onana’s near post. Game on? Possibly. If they could get one more United may start to collapse.

Underdogs get a slice of luck

Any opposition analyst in the Premier League will have the stats in their notebook – United face more shots per game than the other big teams in the Premier League by some distance. More chances increase the probability of a goal, so why not shoot on sight and hope for a deflection or rebound?

Callum O’Hare tried his luck from just outside the penalty area and got rewarded with a goal, his shot hitting the back of Aaron Wan Bissaka and looping into the top corner. The look on the faces of United players suggested they knew the momentum had shifted.

Onana looks to have got United out of jail

Climbing part way up the mountain can be too much for some teams but Coventry showed they meant business with another chance that could easily have been an equaliser. It was Victor Torp again, at the centre of everything after coming off the bench, who got a volley away after United failed to clear a corner. It was an outstanding save from Andre Onana, leaping to his left to keep it out of the top corner. But it meant United knew they were in for a tough finale.

Hojlund forgets to shoot

Still leading 3-2, United had a huge chance to seal the tie but Rasmus Hojlund totally froze at the big moment. It is difficult to call it a miss because the Danish striker never got his shot away when just eight yards out from goal.

Fed by Bruno Fernandes’ pass, Hojlund’s first touch put him in the perfect position to finish, yet a player who has not scored since February showed his lack of confidence in front of goal. He took touch, and another, and it allowed Victor Torp to get back and tackle.

Collapse well and truly complete

United’s capitulation was completed when Luis Binks stretched to keep the ball in play and pull-back to the danger area. Wan Bissaka’s arm was out and the ball struck it – penalty given. With all the momentum swinging towards Coventry, it was no surprise that Haji Wright kept his cool to score from the penalty sport. In the space of less than half-an-hour, United had thrown away their lead.