Manchester United have lost eight of their opening fifteen games this season.
They sit currently eighth in the Premier League table with a negative goal difference, third in their Champions League group with a negative goal difference, and were recently dispatched from the Carabao Cup by a reserve Newcastle side in humiliating fashion.
There is no amount of contortion or context which can placate how awful a start Erik ten Hag‘s side have endured, with the performances often having been worse than the results. Even the victories United have managed to achieve have largely come in games they did not deserve to win.
It has not been a pretty picture off the pitch either.
In recent weeks, it appears the tide has been turning against the dogmatic Dutchman, after he had enjoyed such a successful debut season in England. The feelings of positivity surrounding the club over the summer have been vanquished, replaced by an all too familiar feeling of unease and unrest.
Rumours of dressing room discontent have rearer their ugly head. Reports linking the club to other managers have emerged in the press. Suggestions Ten Hag is on “thin ice” with the executive branch at Old Trafford were quickly refuted by the club, just as they were for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and for Jose Mourinho before him, and for Louis Va…you get the picture.
This whirlwind of public negativity is, therefore, not a novel experience for the club. Rather, it is a continuation of the exact same playbook which has claimed the jobs of every United manager since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. Ten Hag simply looks like the next victim in a horror film we’ve all seen before.
Yet, while the Dutch manager cannot, and should not, be exonerated completely for the dismal displays this season, he has earned more than enough goodwill from last season to be given the chance to steady a sinking ship; particularly when the almost unprecedented injury crisis he has faced is factored in.
And there are a range of statistics in comparison to his predecessors to prove why he should not join them on the P45 list, but rather be the first manager to break the post-Fergie curse.
Manchester United Manager’s Records
(Stats provided by The Daily Mail)
David Moyes (2013-2014)
|Louis van Gaal (2014-2015)||Jose Mourinho (2016-2018)||Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (2018-2021)||Ralf Rangnick (2021-2022)||Erik ten Hag (2022-Present day)|
|Goals Scored (per game)||1.69||1.53||1.69||1.92||1.28||1.66|
|Goals Conceded (per game)||1.06||0.95||0.84||0.98||1.28||1.16|
The immediate stand outs from this list are four-fold.
One – Ralf Rangnick’s tenure was as close to a complete disaster as you can possibly imagine.
Two – the best attacking unit a manager has been able to cultivate at Old Trafford since Sir Alex was his former pupil, Solskjaer.
Three – the best defensive record a manager has been able to achieve was, naturally, Mourinho’s. The fact he was also able to generate the joint second-best attacking return gives some credence to his assessment of his second season at Old Trafford being one of the “best jobs” in his illustrious career.
Four – Ten Hag’s win record is comfortably ahead of his predecessors. In fact, he even trumps Sir Alex (59.7%). Yet his ability to get his team to be effective at either end of the pitch – to score goals and to prevent them – is arguably the worst on the list, bar Rangnick. How does it make sense?
Last Season vs This Season
This season has proved a marked difference to the joy United fans were experiencing last year – a season in which it felt like the club had finally turned a corner. And that difference in emotion bears out statistically.
If the table above was adjusted to only include Ten Hag’s first season in charge, his record would look like this:
- Matches Played = 62
- Won = 41
- Drawn = 9
- Loss = 12
- Goals for = 108
- Goals scored per game = 1.74
- Goals against = 64
- Goals conceded per game = 1.03
More goals scored per game, less goals conceded per game, and an impressive win percentage of 66.1%. When you throw in a Carabao Cup win, a comfortable third place finish and an FA Cup Final, it shows Ten Hag was able to covert his statistical success into competitive triumph.
If the table was adjusted to only include this season, we begin to unpack the contrast between in the table above.
- Matches Played = 15
- Won = 7
- Drawn = 0
- Loss = 8
- Goals for = 20
- Goals scored per game = 1.25
- Goals against = 25
- Goals conceded per game = 1.67
A collection of numbers which makes Rangnick’s time at Old Trafford look a success.
Injuries vs Evolution
So evidently this season has skewed the statistics, particularly from a defensive perspective. But United’s performances this season make more sense when the injury crisis which has besieged the squad is considered.
Ten Hag has, for large parts of the season, been deprived of his first-choice back four. He’s also been without many of the first-choice reserves, relying on a hastily agreed loan deal for a Tottenham reject and a reincarnated Jonny Evans on a free to make up the numbers.
Simultaneous to these injury woes, Ten Hag has been attempting to install the next stage of his continued evolution of his United team.
Andre Onana, Mason Mount and Rasmus Hojlund were the three major signings in the summer, targeted at the behest of the Dutch manager. The commonality between their profiles are ones which lend themselves towards a high-octane, press-heavy style which attempts to put the opposition on the back foot.
Ten Hag spoke in the summer, at great length, about wanting to see United become the “best transition team in the world.” It’s a vision which, in his own words, honours both the DNA of the club, but also the strengths of his squad.
While this tactical choice has not borne fruits in terms of results, or even performances, there are a number of metrics which suggest United are moving in the direction their manager wants. This direction has been reliant upon a tweaked midfield set up however; one which has not seemingly lent itself towards one of the pillars of United’s success last season – Casemiro.
The Brazilian behemoth appears to have aged ten years in the space of a summer such is the contrast between his performance level this season versus last.
Casemiro was most effectively deployed last season in a 4-2-3-1 system with Christian Eriksen alongside him, whose intelligence and technical ability allowed him to be the primary source of ball progression from deep.
This freed up Casemiro to an extent, who was able to focus on midfield security or, if the situation permitted, striding forward himself. Five goals and six assists is an impressive return for a defensive midfielder in any league, let alone the Premier League.
This season, however, has seen Eriksen replaced by Mason Mount, with a more classical 4-3-3 formation being utilised. At the beginning of the season, Mount played almost as another number ten, alongside Bruno Fernandes, high up the pitch. The intention was to enforce the press-heavy style Ten Hag wishes to see; the reality was something far different.
Casemiro was left isolated, tasked with the role of progressing the ball from deep, as well as providing the midfield steel he is renowned for. As a result, he was seemingly unable to do either. The opening day fixture against Wolves most eminently demonstrated this issue, with the away side producing the most shots on United’s goal at Old Trafford for nearly two decades.
There are, therefore, two competing reasons why United have appeared so dysfunctional this season, which have coalesced to produce the historically poor start.
Ten Hag is attempting to implement a new style of football without the foundation of defensive strength he enjoyed last season. United’s new midfield structure would always take time to teethe; without the protection of a strong defence this teething process has devolved into a full on cavity.
The results speak for themselves.
The Argument for Patience
There are a host of reasons to be justifiably worried by Ten Hag’s choices during his time at Old Trafford.
The recruitment has not improved the squad at a level commensurate with the money spent. Nearly £400 million has been invested on, for the most part, Ten Hag’s first-choice signings. Yet the team still feels like it has deficiencies in the same areas of the pitch as before the Dutchman was appointed.
To have started the derby against Manchester City with your £85 million winger (Antony) and your £60 million midfielder (Mount) on the bench, with Eriksen and Scott McTominay essentially playing in their place, is a clear admission of incompetent prolifigacy.
Similarly, the decision to pursue a transitional style of play, with Casemiro as a solitary deep-lying playmaker, behind two number tens (Fernandes and Mount) who operate best in the same area, appears misguided.
Yet how successful can any manager be when fielding a second-string defensive unit every game?
Mauricio Pochettino has endured a difficult start to life as Chelsea manager. His side sit currently 11th in the table with three draws and four losses from their opening ten games. While performances have actually been positive, results have not. It’s no surprise, therefore, that Pochettino has been without Reece James, Wesley Fofana and Ben Chilwell, as well as Malo Gusto and Trevoh Chalobah, for most of these games.
Jurgen Klopp suffered a similar experience to Ten Hag in the 2021/22 season. Virgil van Dijk, Joel Matip and Joe Gomez were all ruled out during a period which saw Liverpool lose six times in the league across seven games; Sheffield United being the only side Klopp’s makeshift defence could overcome. The German faced questions strikingly similar to the ones being asked of Ten Hag.
Mikel Arteta’s title charge fell apart last season when William Saliba was ruled out for the run-in with an injury, resulting in Arsenal surrendering first position in the Premier League after having enjoyed it for 93% of the season prior. And that was just one member of his back four. Try the entire unit Mikel!
Even Pep Guardiola – whose City side were lauded to an almost nauseous level following the derby given there was zero mention of the 115 charges of financial breaches levelled against the club – lost three domestic games in a row only a month ago. The cause? A red card to Rodri – the player who functions as the defensive lynchpin of the midfield – and an injury to John Stones.
Ten Hag is, therefore, not alone in experiencing a string of abject performances and poor results when confronted with defensive absences.
United’s manager deserves to be afforded the time for his defence to return from injury before any definitive judgements are cast on his long-term future. Ten Hag was too successful in his first season, as demonstrated in the aforementioned table, to completely write off his second, when the defensive crisis is factored into the equation.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka played for the first time in two months against Newcastle and was a rare bright spot in an otherwise appalling team display. Luke Shaw is scheduled to return towards the end of this month, while Raphael Varane is recovering from illness, and is potentially available to play this weekend. Lisandro Martinez won’t be available until the new year as he continues to recover from surgery.
Three out of four ain’t bad.
Ten Hag will have to hope it’s enough to see his side turn a very abrupt corner, and quick. With five winnable fixtures on the horizon – Fulham (A), Copenhagan (A), Luton (H), Galatasaray (A) and Everton (H) – the stage is set for United to rescue the season. Their manager will be hoping a rejuvenated defensive unit will be the foundation from which the rescue mission is launched.