April 19, 2024

MANCHESTER, England — Manchester United cleared an awkward hurdle against Luton Town on Saturday, winning 1-0 in the Premier League, but there’s a mountain to climb after the international break. Erik ten Hag’s team scraped past Luton thanks to Victor Lindelöf‘s second-half goal but — again — it was not a display to instil confidence ahead of tough run of away games against Everton, Galatasaray and Newcastle United following the November internationals.

United aren’t playing well enough to do things the easy way and it’s telling that they’re still waiting for a Premier League win this season by more than one goal. At least they found a way to win, though, and just like last weekend at Fulham, Ten Hag gratefully accepted a narrow 1-0 victory.

“Even after all the setbacks we dealt with, we are still in a position near the top four, and when we start to play well and when we get it done, a team is set for a couple of weeks and months, then other teams will get their setbacks and drop points,” Ten Hag said afterward with slightly more optimism than the performance deserved. “Now we have won four of our last five games in the Premier League. If you see all the trouble we had, we are in a very good position. That is a reason to be optimistic. Then we will move forward and get better performances and get even more points.”

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Ten Hag is dealing with a lot of different issues, including an injury list that has been lengthened after Christian Eriksen and Rasmus Højlund were both forced off against Luton. Nevertheless, his team are not helping themselves.

Højlund and Alejandro Garnacho both had good chances to score before half-time, but instead, another first half went by with United failing to find the net. In 12 Premier League games so far this season, they’ve scored four first-half goals and led at the break just once, against Burnley in September.

If early goals take the pressure off, then United are stuck in the habit of letting it pile on. They haven’t scored in the first 15 minutes of a league game this season and here Luton were happy to allow the frustration to creep in.

As the away fans in their corner of Old Trafford got more boisterous, the home support began to get more restless. It seeped onto the pitch and Harry Maguire and Scott McTominay were involved in a row with lots of gesturing and finger pointing.

The mood inside the stadium was only settled once Lindelöf put United in front with his first goal since December 2020. After Højlund and Marcus Rashford both missed good chances, though, supporters were back biting their fingernails for eight minutes of injury time during which Luton pumped long balls into the box and United defended frantically.

The hosts dominated the game and deserved to win, but over the course of 90 minutes, Luton matched their four attempts on target. André Onana made one good save from a Carlton Morris header in the first half but, as so often this season, it felt far from a comfortable afternoon.

In 18 games across all competitions this season, they have won just one by two clear goals, and even that was against Crystal Palace‘s reserves in the Carabao Cup.

“We could have made life more easy when we score goals but we create many chances,” said Ten Hag, who was booked for dissent and is set to serve a touchline suspension against Everton on Nov. 26. “In the first half, there were four 100 percent chances. If you get the first you get the second and it becomes more easy, but if you don’t score they can always drop a ball in the box and you are in trouble, but we had to fight to the end.

“I don’t think it is a confidence thing because Rasmus Højlund scored five goals in the Champions League so it will come [in the Premier League]. Rashford scored 30 goals last season so there will come a day when he starts scoring again. We have already 13 goal scorers in our team and it shows the way we want to play football; everyone attacking, everyone defending.”

United fans are still waiting to discover whether Ten Hag can turn this season around. How United weather trips to Everton, Galatasaray and Newcastle in the space of seven days will be a good indicator.

Win those three games and Man United will have edged closer to the top four in the Premier League and clawed their way back from the brink of elimination in the Champions League. Lose, and any hope for the campaign will have drained away before the end of November and Ten Hag will face more questions about his future.

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