A run of three consecutive victories for Manchester United came to a predictable and emphatic end as the whistle sounded on a chastening evening at Old Trafford. United had been outplayed, outcoached, outran and completely embarrassed by their neighbours, Manchester City.
City were deserving winners…at Old Trafford.
On a deplorable afternoon for United, let’s look through what went right and what mostly went wrong for Erik ten Hag and his men.
1. Andre Onana
Yes, there was one positive from the night, albeit it was an effort to find one and that was the performance of goalkeeper Andre Onana, who seemed to have found his mojo back.
Not much blame could be pinned on him for any of the three goals while the final scoreline could have made for much worse reading if not for some of his saves to deny Erling Haaland.
Onana looked solid on the ball and save for a few slightly nervy moments where he failed to control the ball, he was easily United’s best player… which really is a poor sign.
Now…onto the negatives.
1. Ten Hag gets it wrong tactically
“Tactics.” That was the response provided by the United manager when asked about the reasoning for not selecting Sergio Reguilon and Raphael Varane in his starting line-up. Well, if it was tactics that was the reasoning then the judgement and responsibility can only fall upon one person and that is the manager.
While we are not privy to what goes on behind the scenes and the words of Ten Hag can only be taken at face value, the decision to field Victor Lindelof at left-back backfired dramatically.
The Swede was targeted relentless by Phil Foden and never looked comfortable, losing Kyle Walker early in the match which allowed the City fullback to head the ball back into the box for a chance which Haaland squandered and being burnt by Foden’s pace later from a City through-ball which, luckily for him, Foden miscontrolled.
On tactics as well, Ten Hag made reference in his post-match interview that the penalty changed everything and while that may be true, questions will be asked as to why, despite going behind at home, that the tempo and urgency came from the away side despite United needing a goal.
2. Ten Hag’s faith in Scott McTominay not rewarded
Nobody in world football would claim that a player of Scott McTominay’s calibre has any business starting a game for United but that is not to say he does not merit a place at least in the squad for his almost poacher-like habit of finding goals from midfield. Just ask Brentford.
The Scot is player well known for his weakness when his side is on the ball due to his reluctance to present as passing option, but what can’t be debated is his work ethic and desire to run himself into the ground whenever his side doesn’t have possession.
Well, mysteriously the latter trait is no longer present this season and when you have no consistent ability on and off the ball the question has to be asked what his contribution to the side is.
Yes, the ability to sniff out a goal is still there but that is dependent on United either creating many chances for their attackers and McTominay or United having their backs against the wall and throwing everything into attack as they did against Brentford and neither of these occurred against City.
Ten Hag will have to ask himself that while McTominay has been scoring recently, at what cost has that come to his team’s overall play, and would McTominay be better served as an option coming off the bench?
3. Sofyan Amrabat signing has underwhelmed so far
Casemiro is 31 years old and is obviously not at the beginning of his career. His start to the season has been poor and today offered a gloomy look into the future of how bad life can be for United without him.
Amrabat was brought in as an option for Casemiro now and possibly for the future and it’s been underwhelming. Time and time again, the Moroccan looked lost and often ran into his teammates’ space or marked the wrong player, resulting in him desperately trying to run back to his opponent and committing fouls.
Across all his performances, bar the Crystal Palace win in the Carabao Cup, Amrabat has not seemed to be on the same wavelength with his teammates and that is something that Ten Hag needs to fix, especially given it was the manager’s decision to sign him.
4. How much more patient will Ten Hag be with Rashford?
Since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013, United have only been able to finish in the top four in consecutive seasons just once. The pattern of the club has been to finish top 4 and then, instead of following up by building on their progress, fall back in the league the following season.
For context, failure under Ferguson was deemed to be not winning the league and now it is not finishing top 4. How far the mighty have fallen.
Symptomatic of this is the form of Marcus Rashford’s form in the previous four seasons. In 2020-21, he finished the season with 21 goals and followed it up in 2021-22 with five goals. Last season he broke his record by plundering 30 goals and currently he only has a solitary goal to his name. Damning.
Such numbers can only serve to question what the player’s standards and how strong his determination is.
The key issue with Rashford is that he is a player who can escape certain defensive and less glamorous responsibilities off the ball due to his production in attack. Unfortunately, when you squander goal-scoring chances, your performance will look damning due to the optics of your style.
Rashford can perhaps look to his City counterparts in Bernardo Silva or Phil Foden to see how hard they work off the ball to present themselves as a passing option and while that has never been Rashford’s game, he needs to at least look like he is searching for ways to contribute when things are not going his way and working hard off the ball, in spite of tactics or the way he plays, is never a bad thing.
5. A United team devoid of heart and fight
The story of the season so far for this United side has been that they start well enough in the first 20 minutes and then get sucker-punched for conceding a goal. Opposition teams of yesteryear will say that going behind at Old Trafford provided a greater sense of fear than relief as they knew United have now been awoken from their slumber. Those days are long gone now.
Instead, against Brighton, Palace and Galatasary, United have looked lethargic, disinterested and lost.
Ten Hag has spoken at various points last season of how turning the Theatre of Dreams into a fortress again was important to the long-term success of the club and not even halfway into the current season, all that work is undone.
Only a fool would think United would come out of this game with a higher percentage of possession than Pep Guardiola’s side so the possession stats alone cannot be a point of the gap between the sides. That gap is reflected on the scoreline and how each team performed relative to the tactics they deployed.
Ten Hag seemingly set his team up to let City have the ball and hit them on the break and to their credit, they were able to do that a few times in the first half. The issue, however, is that City put the ball into the back of the net three times and could have scored more through the way Guardiola set up his side.
In their meeting in the league at Old Trafford last season, the tactical set-up was similar with City having more of the ball but that time United’s discipline, work ethic and structure only allowed their neighbours to possess the ball largely outside the penalty box. This time, however, City penetrated time and time again with their play on the ball.
This is not to say that the approach to play a counter-attacking style was wrong for United but in doing so requires a lot to go right when United have a rare opportunity on the ball and at the moment that is not happening
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United have a lot of injuries and Ten Hag’s success last season has, rightly so, earnt him patience largely amongst the fans. But if he is to state that “tactics” was the reason for his starting line-up and subsequent set-up of his team, then questions will inevitably be asked of him and as these questions continue to grow…the patience will inversely shrink.