Manchester United. Win, lose. Qualify, go out. Does it matter any more?

Manchester United. Win, lose. Qualify, go out. Does it matter any more?
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Maybe the most worrying thing from Erik ten Hag’s perspective should be that we have reached that familiar part of a Manchester United crisis where they have turned the corner so many times they are going around in circles.

In the space of seven days, United went from an abject and apathetic performance at St James’ Park last Saturday, to a galvanising win on Wednesday that was full of urgency, energy and togetherness, only to then round off a tumultuous week yesterday with one of their most humbling defeats at Old Trafford in recent memory.

In the same way that midweek opponents Chelsea — a big scalp in indifferent form — came at just the right time for a morale-boosting victory, Ten Hag and his players could have done without this meeting with a Bournemouth side who are starting to hit their stride under summer appointment Andoni Iraola. Bournemouth were never going to be straightforward opponents in practice, whatever was expected on paper.

What nobody foresaw was a deserved 3-0 defeat, one of the worst results of the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era. It happened to coincide with the 10th anniversary of Ferguson’s anointed successor, David Moyes, admitting six months into his reign that United needed to improve in “a number of areas, including passing, creating chances and defending”.

No change there, then.

But if anything, the story of the past decade at United is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. And as the final whistle sounded yesterday, Ten Hag stood stock-still on the touchline, wearing the same expression of frustration, anger and incredulity we have seen on all of the others to follow Ferguson into the home dugout.

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Around an hour later, Ten Hag bounded in through the door of Old Trafford’s press-conference room with a contained fury. One of the first words in his first answer was “annoyed”.

“We are really inconsistent,” he said. “We have the abilities to do it, but you have to do it every game, and every third day.” On that same subject, he added: “I think, as a squad, we are not good enough to be consistent and we have to work as a squad to improve that.”

United have got inconsistency down to an art form. This season’s 11 wins have been balanced out by 11 defeats. The only draw — the 3-3 with Galatasaray in Istanbul — means that even victory over leaders Bayern Munich in Tuesday’s group finale here may not be enough to qualify for the Champions League knockout stages.

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But even if United beat Bayern and qualify for the Champions League round of 16, would that then be a turning point? Or more likely would it be another temporary positive bump in this familiar boom-and-bust cycle that has been going on since August?

Yes, it would mean €9.6million (£8.2m; $10.3m) in prize money, plus more in matchday and broadcasting revenues, but what in United’s recent history guarantees those funds will be put to good use?

As for on the pitch, can a side of United’s inconsistency and a club who have reached the Champions League quarter-finals twice in the past 10 years have expectations of a meaningful run through the competition, let alone winning it? You could say avoiding elimination on Tuesday would simply be delaying the inevitable.

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That may be an overly pessimistic reading, but it is an understandable one given that another defeat never feels far away right now. United’s longest winning streak this season is equal to their longest losing one — three games. Any respite for Ten Hag has been brief. The next crisis point has always just been around the corner. We have been here before, too.

The end of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign in November 2021 was like something from the theatre of the absurd, as a dysfunctional team of talented individuals plumbed new depths but never quite played badly enough to force the change that was needed. That side repeatedly conjured performances out of nothing to bring their manager back from the brink until, suddenly, they didn’t.

It was a similar story three years earlier as Jose Mourinho spiralled the drain. There was the odd sign of life in the old dog yet — coming from 2-0 down to beat Newcastle, bettering Juventus in Turin, bludgeoning a way past Young Boys with Marouane Fellaini playing like a proto-Scott McTominay. It was all for nothing, though, with the toxicity behind the scenes eventually proving too much.

This week carries some uncanny parallels with those final days of Mourinho, who was eventually sacked two days after a 3-1 defeat away to Liverpool in December 2018.

Ten Hag will take his team to Anfield on Sunday, a day short of the fifth anniversary of Mourinho’s dismissal. If United lose again in that one, he will only be one point better off this season than the Portuguese was after the same number of games in 2018-19.

There is a key difference, though, and it is one which almost renders even defeats as humbling as this to Bournemouth as borderline irrelevant. After all, even if it was decided results are bad enough to force a change of manager, it is not entirely clear who at Old Trafford would have the power to make that call.

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Since Ferguson’s retirement, the final say on such decisions has been with co-chairman Joel Glazer. But control of sporting operations will soon change hands to incoming co-owner INEOS, once the relevant paperwork on Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s 25 per cent minority investment is completed, some six to eight weeks after it was announced.

Until then, it is unclear how much can change. The Athletic has previously reported that some close to the club feel no major decisions will be taken before Ratcliffe’s feet are officially under the table and until then, the Glazers do not want to cause any upheaval.

Questions have even been raised as to whether United can afford to sack Ten Hag right now, considering the compensation payments that would be required in both a dismissal and the hiring of a replacement.

So, while no United win currently feels like a turning point, no defeat feels like a death knell either.

In this state of something approaching purgatory, Ten Hag might find he has enough time on his hands to come up with a lasting solution. But it will not be easy.

For the most part, United’s attempt to find consistency on the pitch is not helped by the uncertainty off it.

(Top photo: Danehouse Photography Ltd/Getty Images)