Erik ten Hag’s impressive third-place finish in his debut season would have had most Manchester United fans excited about the potential for the current season.
The Red Devils finished third despite suffering from the deeply felt absences of Lisandro Martinez and Raphael Varane at crucial points of the season, a dramatic improvement on the club’s sixth-place finish.
However, this season has seen Man them get off to a somewhat rocky start, and there appears to be a growing cloud of doubt over their prospects of improvement from last season’s relative success.
This is perhaps best expressed by the fact that United’s defensive-minded players are currently their leading offensive contributors, with Varane as the top scorer and Aaron Wan-Bissaka as the top assister.
These stats may not be meaningful in context: Varane has a solitary goal, and Wan-Bissaka a lone assist.
And, of course, only two games have been played, with United beating Wolves on the opening day before succumbing to Tottenham Hotspur in a 2 – 0 loss, a scoreline that somewhat exaggerates how poor United were on the day.
That said, the performances have not been impressive or particularly entertaining to watch. So what exactly is going wrong at Old Trafford, and should United fans be worried?
A two-game sample will not be enough to draw any firm conclusions, but the evidence suggests several forces at play.
To begin with, some of the same old challenges persist. United look lost with Marcus Rashford playing at 9 – a problem that prompted Ten Hag to seek January reinforcements last season, in the form of Wout Weghorst, and to acquire Rasmus Hojlund for a whopping €83m this summer.
The good news is that once Hojlund recovers from the back injury that has upstaged his debut, that problem may be resolved.
However, there is still the question of how to extract increasing returns from United’s big-money forwards, Antony and Jadon Sancho.
While the latter has started off the bench in both games so far, Antony has been a fixture in the starting 11, just as he was last season. But so far, there’s little to indicate that his productivity will be any better than last term’s miserly return of 4 goals and two assists.
Then there is the question of whether United’s disjointed look is because we’re witnessing a side still in reformation.
In particular, United’s new number 7, Mason Mount, is expected to be a significant part of Ten Hag”s plans for the season but has yet to settle. Alejandro Garnacho is also struggling to navigate the new terrain that has come with his promotion to being a first-team regular, which means there’s quite a bit of flux going on at Old Trafford all at once.
But can United’s staggering steps be entirely attributed to growing pains? One counter-argument would be that all of their rivals have brought in new players, too.
For example, last season’s runners-up, Arsenal, have made significant player acquisitions that do not seem to have significantly disrupted their flow.
United have often started the season poorly only to pick up the pace later, as happened last season. It’s also not all been doom and gloom.
United’s first half against Tottenham was decent, with the Red Devils creating many chances. To their credit, Spurs ensured that it was a game of two halves, with the North London side making their chances count, where United had let theirs slip.
Looking ahead to the next few games, there is so much potential for change. Hojlund potentially becoming available, Rashford returning to his preferred wide position, and United signing a new midfielder could be the spark needed to get the season going in earnest.
Ten Hag will also have to decide whether or not to persist with a midfield trio of Casemiro, Bruno Fernandes and Mount. While each of these players offers some individual quality, they have been relatively easy for opposing midfielders to cut through.
The problem seems obvious: Mount and Bruno are too similar, with both naturally inclined to take up similar positions. And while both players tend to press relentlessly, neither is particularly effective at the combative side of the game in the middle third, which has left Casemiro exposed.
Additionally, neither player is quite as adept at controlling the tempo or keeping possession as a player like Christian Eriksen. There is some possibility that this midfield trio will eventually figure out how to play together, but on paper, it’s never looked promising.
United should prioritise bringing in a new midfielder to replace Fred – hopefully, one who brings some physicality while offering a bit more than the energetic Brazilian on the ball.
Sofyan Amrabat is one name that fits this bill and has been linked to Old Trafford all summer, but it remains to be seen if a deal will materialise.
In the meantime, the simple fix would be to deploy two significant tactical changes.
The first would be a reversion to last season’s starting midfield, with Eriksen reclaiming a starting spot.
This would still leave the midfield physically light, but the corresponding improvement in United’s on-the-ball play may more than makeup for the deficit in physicality.
The second change would be a realignment of United’s attackers. Anthony Martial, who is currently enjoying one of his intermittent interludes of fitness, could start in the nine position, with Garnacho making way for Rashford on the left.
These changes would be temporary fixes until Hojlund is ready to play and United bring in an additional midfielder.
For now, however, there is no significant cause for concern. One win in two is not ideal, but it is far from a disaster.