Reason for optimism? Why Manchester United’s season could be about to get even worse

Ten Hag will be suspended from his side’s next match

Indeed, those seven victories have all come by a lone goal; fine margins may have benefited them and their expected points total, of 16.32, is far lower than their actual haul of 21, putting them below Brentford and Everton in that particular chart. United have a sole truly dominant performance to their name this season, against Crystal Palace in the Carabao Cup.

And issues abound across the team. A third of the way into the campaign, United have 13 league goals, three fewer than Wolves, under half Villa’s total. Ridiculously, United have just one from a forward. Perhaps it means individual droughts will soon become floods. “Rasmus Hojlund scored five goals in the Champions League,” Ten Hag noted. “[Marcus] Rashford scored 30 goals last season.”

Now he has one. If Rashford was United’s player of the year last season, and there were several other compelling candidates, now there are too few. Halt the campaign now and the frontrunners for the Sir Matt Busby award might be Harry Maguire and Scott McTominay: men who have revived their United careers, but two who the club were willing to sell at the right price. Arguably no one else has played well enough to merit a mention.

United’s season scarcely shows a strategy that is about to pay off with spectacular improvement. Ten Hag’s bench for Saturday’s win over Luton contained two of his flagship signings year summer, in Sofyan Amrabat and Mason Mount, each now behind McTominay in the queue for places in a midfield without the injured Casemiro, plus his biggest buy, in the eternally disappointing Antony. Rashford played on the right wing, his third best position; none of this seemed part of Ten Hag’s summer blueprint, just as his summer spending spree is yet to reap a dividend.

A banner at Old Trafford tells United to ‘play like you mean it’

Ten Hag’s makeshift line-ups stem from injuries – it is quicker to name the United players who have not missed games than those who have – but also from shifts in thinking, from desperate searches for a winning formula. His defence has been decimated and Ten Hag would say that affects the attack, both in terms of the continuity and understanding that bring routines, and with Shaw and Martinez’s ability to pass out from the back.

Defensively, though, there are other difficulties. Unconvincing as Andre Onana has been, his worst errors have been confined to the Champions League. It can feel odd to see that, while sometimes conceding in damning fashion, he has one of the highest save percentages in the Premier League. Go by expected goals and United should have conceded more. Again, the numbers suggest they are poorer than the table indicated. In short, it could have been worse.

And it could get worse. This should have been the easy part. In their last 12 matches in all competitions, United have had a Manchester derby but each of the other 11 would have been winnable for the team of last season. This year, they lost five of 12.

Now, as the fixture list gets ominous, Ten Hag thinks United could get better. He may be right but, apart from the prospect of players returning to fitness, the last three months offer too few other reasons for optimism. “Quite a good position” could get become what is definitively a bad one.

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