May 24, 2024

Manchester United‘s disastrous season continued with a 3-0 home defeat to Newcastle United on Wednesday, and the problems are mounting at Old Trafford. Manager Erik ten Hag said after their Carabao Cup exit that he’s “a fighter,” but he’s under pressure after a run of eight defeats from 15 games to start the 2023-24 campaign.

Ten Hag and United have had to deal with several injuries to key players, as well as noise in the background about a potential takeover, with Sir Jim Ratcliffe acquiring a reported 25% of the club and working alongside the Glazers. Yet there’s a growing debate about whether he’s still the right man for the job after some curious tactical decisions and questionable transfers.

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As the situation at United approaches a boiling point, here’s a look at the biggest issues at the club.

The ownership

There has been uncertainty around Old Trafford ever since the Glazer family announced in November 2022 that they would consider “strategic alternatives,” including accepting outside investment or, potentially, agreeing to a full sale. The chances of the Glazers leaving for good disappeared when Qatari businessman Sheikh Jassim Bin Hamad Al Thani pulled out of the race on Oct. 14, citing the Glazers’ “unrealistic” valuation, and it looks likely that the British billionaire Ratcliffe will eventually take on a 25% stake.

Ratcliffe and his INEOS consortium want to take control of the football side of the business and although Ten Hag has denied the potential upheaval as a cause of ongoing issues, football director John Murtough would be vulnerable in any shakeup of the org chart. Most fans can trace back all their grievances to the Glazers, but as things stand, they’re staying at the helm.

The manager

Ten Hag has been in the job for 18 months and for the first time, he’s under pressure. He has credit in the bank after a successful first season — United did qualify for the Champions League, finishing third in 2022-23 — but while most supporters are still backing him, many are questioning some of his decisions. Ten Hag said his decision to drop experienced defenders Raphaël Varane and Sergio Reguilón for the Manchester derby was “tactical” — United lost 3-0 — and twice in a matter of months, he has been booed for substituting new forward Rasmus Hojlund.

The biggest issue for many fans is that there still doesn’t seem to be any defined style of play. Before losing to City and Newcastle, United won three games in a row against Brentford, Sheffield United and FC Copenhagen, but all three victories came down to random moments of skill like Diogo Dalot‘s wonder-strike against Sheffield United and André Onana‘s penalty save in stoppage time against Copenhagen. It’s not sustainable and, 15 games into the season, you can argue that United have had only one comfortable victory against Crystal Palace‘s reserves in the Carabao Cup in September.

The recruitment

Despite concerns over the ownership, United have still spent £400m to sign new players since Ten Hag’s arrival in the summer of 2022, and there are questions about how those funds have been used. Murtough has come in for criticism given his role, but so has Ten Hag, whose fingerprints are all over the transfer policy.

Of the 16 players who have arrived under Ten Hag, four (goalkeeper Andre Onana, forward Antony, defender Lisandro Martínez and forward Sofyan Amrabat) have worked with him at former clubs and another four (defender Tyrell Malacia, forward Wout Weghorst and midfielders Christian Eriksen and Mason Mount) are either Dutch or have links to the Dutch Eredivisie. It was telling that Antony (United’s second-most expensive signing ever at £82m from Ajax) and Mount (£55m from Chelsea in the summer) were both left on the bench for the Sunday’s derby defeat to Man City.

Antony’s signing for such a huge fee is particularly baffling, and the Brazilian winger has come nowhere near justifying the money.

The dressing room

United’s decision-makers still have faith in Ten Hag, and that will change only if results don’t improve and he loses the dressing room. Some players have concerns about his high-intensity training sessions between matches, and not everyone agrees with the severity of Jadon Sancho’s punishment for publicly calling out his manager; however, for the most part, the squad remain onside.

One of Ten Hag’s biggest problems is that key players are underperforming. Marcus Rashford looks like a shadow of the player who scored 30 goals last season, while Casemiro and Varane — proven Champions League winners at Real Madrid — are struggling for form. Injuries haven’t helped — at one point Ten Hag was missing 16 first-team players — but it’s starting to look very similar to the end of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign, when results started spiralling and there was nothing the Norwegian manager could do to stem the tide.

play

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Laurens: Man United lost to Newcastle’s ‘C Team’

Gab & Juls react to Manchester United’s 3-0 loss to Newcastle in the Carabao Cup.

The season

United’s poor form is nothing new; in fact, Ten Hag could trace it back to the Carabao Cup final in February. Up to and including victory over Newcastle at Wembley that day, United had played 40 games, won 29 and lost six for a win percentage of 72.5%. In the eight months since, they have played 37 games, won 20 and lost 13, and seen their win percentage drop to 54%.

The danger for Ten Hag is that Champions League qualification is usually regarded as the minimum requirement for any United manager, but only once in the past decade has a team recovered from losing five of its first 10 league games to finish in the top four. That was Tottenham in 2021-22 when Nuno Espirito Santo was replaced by Antonio Conte in November.

Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool are all playing well, but Ten Hag could yet get a reprieve thanks to the Champions League’s new format. The 2024-25 competition will feature more teams, and there’s a chance the Premier League will have five, rather than four, qualifiers.

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