Erik ten Hag’s Tactical Dilemmas and Manchester United’s Challenges

Man Utd were beaten again at Old Trafford / Alex Livesey/GettyImages

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On a rainy Saturday evening, around 6:35 PM, Erik ten Hag made his way out of the Old Trafford tunnel, where a group of dedicated Manchester United supporters had gathered despite the inclement weather. He acknowledged their presence with a raised hand, exchanged a brief embrace with a friend, and swiftly climbed into his Audi 4X4, making a hasty exit. However, Manchester United couldn’t escape their recent struggles.

The matches from the past week laid bare the fragility of a squad that had appeared mentally resilient in the previous season. While United had dominated a League Cup match against Crystal Palace, they stumbled when facing a more formidable Palace side in a Premier League rematch.

After seven games in the current season, Manchester United found themselves with the same number of points as they did four years ago—a period marked by doubts about Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tenure. Solskjaer’s era had been characterized by counterattacking football and a “cultural reset,” but Gary Neville emphasized the need for a fresh “cultural reset” for United on that Saturday evening.

Although some colleagues had raised questions about Ten Hag’s position, it’s important to note that the situation wasn’t as dire as it might have seemed. Similar to Solskjaer’s first summer in charge, United’s investment in the transfer market signaled strong support. Nonetheless, certain issues had become predictably apparent. Marcus Rashford’s form had significantly declined since signing a five-year, £325,000-a-week contract in July, despite being United’s top scorer with 30 goals the previous season. This season, Rashford had managed just one goal in eight games, drawing criticism from fans during matches against Palace, Burnley, and Brighton. In seven league games, United had scored a mere seven goals.

Regarding Rashford’s struggles, Ten Hag commented, “I think he knows he can do better than he does now, and I am sure it will come. He works hard, and that is what he is doing. He will score, he will finish, and it will come, but it is not going to be automatic.”

Suggestions for in-game substitutions, such as bringing on Alejandro Garnacho for Facundo Pellistri, had been made, but Ten Hag needed to show the same boldness in his in-game changes as he did in his first season. Notable examples from his debut season included Anthony Martial against Liverpool, Rashford against Wolves, Antony against Barcelona, Aaron Wan-Bissaka in the League Cup final, Casemiro against West Ham, and Jadon Sancho against Leicester City. This season, Victor Lindelof had unexpectedly excelled in three different matches.

Rasmus Hojlund, a 20-year-old, had been thrust into a starting role, and while some inexperience was expected, United needed to find a balance in how often they relied on him. Unlike a club like Brighton, which could gradually introduce lesser-known talents acquired inexpensively, United operated under intense scrutiny. Hojlund’s alternative as the No.9 was Martial, whose future at the club seemed uncertain.

Mason Mount, a marquee signing, had already shown signs of pressure and fatigue, reminiscent of past high-profile arrivals. His performance against Palace’s weaker side had contrasted starkly with his struggles against their stronger lineup.

Few teams had the luxury of turning to £120 million worth of talent in the late stages of a game. In the recent match, only Harry Maguire and Donny van de Beek had been instructed by Ten Hag to remove their tracksuit tops, despite United’s attempts to sell both players during the summer transfer window.

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