Erik ten Hag has plenty to ponder as Man United struggle
Marcus Rashford among misfiring forwards, uncertainty over the strongest midfield and who is Harry Maguire’s best partner? Erik ten Hag has plenty to ponder over the international fortnight with Man United still struggling
- Saturday’s 1-0 victory over Luton has given Erik ten Hag some breathing space
- But shaky start to the season leave him searching for answers to many questions
- City had their pants pulled down by a development team – It’s All Kicking Off
Peace at last for Erik ten Hag.
As most of his Manchester United players jet off to represent their countries for the final time in 2023, the coach has a couple of weeks breathing space to work on answers to many questions.
Saturday’s slender win over Luton Town has offered Ten Hag some much-needed respite and it’s astonishing to see United sitting sixth in the Premier League table for all their problems.
Indeed, with four wins from their last five games, United are among the league’s form sides.
But league form unfortunately be taken in isolation from United’s shocking Champions League campaign and feeble Carabao Cup defence.
Erik ten Hag still has plenty to ponder despite Manchester United’s win over Luton on Saturday
The Reds have lost as many matches as they’ve won during a shaky start to the season
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They have lost nine times and won nine times overall this season – they don’t seem to do draws.
After the internationals, United face a tricky trio of away games against Everton, Galatasaray and Newcastle United that may dictate the direction of their whole season.
Positive results may chart a course for another top-four finish and Champions League football after Christmas. Further defeats could see United slide into mid-table mediocrity and the Europa League – or even out of Europe entirely.
Here’s a closer look at some of the problems Ten Hag needs to solve over the coming fortnight.
Finishing practice for the forwards!
United were indebted yet again to one of their defenders as they squeezed past Luton at Old Trafford.
Victor Lindelof was on hand to fire home the winner, just as Raphael Varane, Harry Maguire and Diogo Dalot made match-winning contributions in earlier games.
Of their 13 Premier League goals so far, three have come from defenders, nine from midfielders and just one from the strikers.
Victor Lindelof (left) fires home United’s winner against Luton as another defender saved them
Marcus Rashford endured another blank afternoon as his struggles in front of goal continued
That was Marcus Rashford’s goal in the 3-1 defeat at Arsenal back in September, with nothing so far in the league from Rasmus Hojlund, Antony, Alejandro Garnacho or Anthony Martial.
Ten Hag isn’t concerned about Hojlund’s Premier League goal drought because the £72million Dane has netted five times in Europe.
His finishing touch deserted him again versus Luton prior to leaving the pitch late on with a hamstring injury that has forced him out of Denmark duty.
The same thing happened to Garnacho, who spurned a very good one-on-one opportunity in the first-half, and needs to be more clinical in such situations.
There is growing indifference among United fans to Antony, who is in growing danger of being remembered as a very expensive flop.
The Brazilian has been jeered in recent games and rumours abound that United could cut their losses on him as soon as January.
Alejandro Garnacho wasn’t able to convert a very good one-on-one opening in the first-half
The young Argentine is one of several United forwards in need of extra finishing practice
Antony is far too predictable when on the ball and has struggled for goals and assists
Man United fixtures
Premier League unless stated
November 26 Everton (A)
November 29 Galatasaray (A)
Champions League group stage
December 2 Newcastle United (A)
December 6 Chelsea (H)
December 9 Bournemouth (H)
December 12 Bayern Munich (H)
Champions League group stage
Rashford, meanwhile, is a shadow of the devastatingly effective goalscorer we saw last season and his goal shortage helps explain why United are struggling to finish off even modest opponents.
Ten Hag maintains everyone will come good but United have scored just 13 times in 12 league games and cannot keep relying on their defenders to bail them out.
Better service for Hojlund
Tied into United’s striker troubles has been the theme of Hojlund not receiving enough service, especially in Premier League games.
There appears to be little cohesion between the front three, regardless of who plays.
Rashford, Antony and Garnacho are all more likely to cut infield and take a shot when they get into a good position rather than look to feed Hojlund, even if he’s in a better position.
With Rashford’s form in a rut, Garnacho still quite raw with his finishing and Antony far too predictable with his intentions, this leads to frustration.
When they do try and combine, such as Rashford’s hooked back-post cross for Hojlund to head the opener against Galatasaray, it proves effective but most of his service comes from the midfielders.
Rasmus Hojlund’s Premier League goal drought continued before he was forced off injured
There isn’t a great deal of cohesion as yet between £72m Hojlund and United’s other forwards
There has been an element of Rashford looking ever-more desperate to get a goal and taking on more chances as he searches for the moment that breaks the logjam.
If the nascent understanding between Rashford and Hojlund can develop – and it will take a bit of time – United should have a deadly strike force.
The may, however, be limited time to work on this now with Rashford away on international duty and Hojlund sidelined anyway.
A succession of injury blows have made it difficult for Ten Hag to pick a settled line-up during the early months of the season.
This has been especially true at left-back but also in key midfield positions, contributing to a feeling Ten Hag isn’t entirely sure of his best combination.
Christian Eriksen has picked up a knee injury, joining the out-of-sorts Casemiro on the treatment table, though the Brazilian should be fit again soon.
Summer arrival Mason Mount missed five games with a knock, while loan signing Sofyan Amrabat was forced to deputise at left-back.
Christian Eriksen became the latest United player to suffer an injury this season
Scott McTominay may have left United back in the summer but has been in excellent form
Ten Hag has been indebted to Scott McTominay, who may have departed Old Trafford over the summer but has chipped in with some strong performances and vital goals.
But Ten Hag needs to have a think about his best midfield going forward. Last season, United’s combination of Casemiro, Eriksen and Bruno Fernandes remained unbeaten for some time.
Currently, there isn’t an obvious first-choice trio. Casemiro has looked off the pace, while playing Eriksen or Mount can leave United exposed.
Conversely, partnering two of Casemiro, McTominay or Amrabat together can stifle their creativity and make it hard to break down opponents.
We have seen Eriksen hurriedly introduced during games to provide a bit more creativity, while in others opponents have enjoyed so much freedom in the centre of the park.
Ten Hag needs to consider who plays there if he only had the luxury of everyone being fit. United look like they need a bit of consistency in this important department.
It’s difficult to know whether Casemiro would make United’s first-choice midfield if fit
Who plays alongside Maguire?
In a conundrum few saw coming at the start of the season, it isn’t a case of does Harry Maguire have an Old Trafford future but who plays alongside him in defence.
The England centre-half has shown remarkable resilience after being dropped by Ten Hag last season, stripped of the captaincy in the summer and roundly ridiculed.
Maguire always wanted to stay at United and fight for his place and that decision has now been vindicated. He has stepped up and performed at a difficult time for the team.
Against Luton, he was paired with Lindelof in a throwback to the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer days and we’ve also seen an improbable partnership with 35-year-old Jonny Evans.
Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire reprised their central defensive partnership on Saturday
There are doubts now over Raphael Varane with Ten Hag continuing to keep him out the side
Ten Hag has been quick to play down talk of any rift with Varane, citing ‘tactical reasons’ and ‘internal competition’, but the Frenchman’s ongoing absence from the starting line-up seems odd.
There must be doubts about Varane’s long-term future at United but Maguire’s good form is certainly helping matters.
It remains to be seen if he retains his place when Lisandro Martinez finally returns to fitness with the Argentine and Varane playing well together last season.
Martinez is a real leader and favoured by Ten Hag so it’s hard to imagine him sitting on the bench when fit while Maguire and Lindelof or Evans play.
Until he returns, however, Ten Hag’s main consideration is who provides the best accompaniment to Maguire. It’s a vital decision – if United aren’t scoring, they must be watertight at the back.
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