Erik ten Hag knows Man Utd’s failings – can he solve them to save season?
Erik ten Hag is back where he started. In one respect, anyway. The Dutchman lost his first two games as Manchester United manager and has lost his last two. He inherited a team in the Europa League, went on a marathon run in the Europa League and, suddenly and despite a run of 30 matches that produced 63 points, could face next season in the Europa League.
Talk of the title at Old Trafford has given way to worry about Liverpool – if not from Ten Hag. But the pain of finishing fifth would be exacerbated if United are leapfrogged by their enemies.
Ten Hag left West Ham on Sunday sounding rational. “If you look at the table we have everything in our hands,” he said. They do. Win three of their last four games and Liverpool’s results become irrelevant. Three of those four matches are at Old Trafford where United are unbeaten in the league since August, dropping just six points. None of their remaining opponents are in the top nine, and United have a lone defeat to bottom-11 sides this season; it was, though, that most recent outing, at West Ham.
United are the team who first had and then lost momentum. They are the side who seemed relentless during the lengthiest fixture list in Europe this season until they now look like running out of steam. They were the squad who seemed transformed under Ten Hag and now appear reliant on overworked, potentially exhausted individuals as faultlines in the group have become more apparent.
They may need Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford to drag them over the line. Fernandes is 54 games into his season, Rashford 53 into his. Factor in international commitments and the Portuguese is up to 63 appearances already.
There is a sense that exertions are taking their toll. United have only won one of their last six games in all competitions, though a penalty shootout triumph against Brighton has also taken them into the FA Cup final. They have three goals in six; three in 584 minutes. They have lost their way later in matches, giving up 2-0 leads to Sevilla and Tottenham, conceding a 99th-minute winner to Brighton.
Ten Hag built a team with a new spine but it has been fractured and frayed. They can count the cost of Sevilla’s visit to Old Trafford; the loss of two goals was accompanied by the loss of two centre-backs, with Lisandro Martinez’s season over and Raphael Varane sidelined ever since. Take each out and United are less secure, less confident, less capable of playing out from the back.
It has felt a reversion to the problems Ole Gunnar Solskjaer bequeathed: Harry Maguire had a harrowing outing in Seville and, partly because of suspension and injury, has not started since. Victor Lindelof has at least been decent as a deputy; United have only conceded in the last three games because of individual errors, though Luke Shaw’s late handball at Brighton and David de Gea’s almost inexplicable inability to save Said Benrahma’s tame shot at West Ham cost two points. But De Gea has had twin terrible nights in the last month, following his disastrous night in Seville. Now there seems a soft underbelly.
Further forward, the relief of seeing players making swifter-than-expected recoveries from injury has given way to questions if they were rushed back when neither has regained form.
Christian Eriksen was excellent against Nottingham Forest but has been more subdued since. Rashford scored one and made another against Spurs but has otherwise had five fruitless outings since returning in the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan. Which has assumed a greater importance, given the way he carried United through winter, through an inspired run of 18 goals and four assists in 19 games.
It makes it a still greater indictment of his teammates that United only have 49 league goals and could yet end up with their second lowest in the Premier League era, ahead only of Louis van Gaal’s self-defeatingly dull team of 2015-16.
A tally of 98 in all competitions at least sounds healthier but others have scarcely eased the burden on Rashford: Anthony Martial has no goals in his last eight outings, Wout Weghorst none in 12, Antony one in 14, Jadon Sancho one in 17.
The supporting cast have offered too little support. Finishing is a problem for a team struggling to end the season in style; they have underperformed their expected goals in ten of their last 11 league games. The need for a striking signing was apparent long before Weghorst descended into utter ineffectuality, but United’s budget could depend in part on qualifying for the Champions League.
And when one route was closed off, it felt less of a blow than it may now prove to be. United were shocking against Sevilla, providing the latest addition to a series of terrible displays that have punctuated their season.
But they were six points ahead of Tottenham and 12 clear of Liverpool then. A top-four finish still appeared overwhelmingly likely. Now the gap to Jurgen Klopp’s team is down to one and it has been downgraded to just probable.
Ten Hag has placed great faith in United’s bouncebackability: every time after August they suffered a setback, they had an immediate response. Until they lost at Brighton and then at West Ham. Now it is Wolves, Bournemouth, Chelsea and Fulham amid the danger that, after a season that has offered grounds for optimism and plenty of evidence of improvement, the league table could make talk of progress look an illusion.