Manchester United’s troubled start to the season means there is no room for error as they head to Burnley on Saturday night, but what’s gone wrong for Erik ten Hag’s side so far?
Muddled midfield: Who plays with Bruno?
Ten Hag has made five midfield signings during his time as United manager, but it is in central areas where his team are still struggling most. While captain Bruno Fernandes’ spot is guaranteed, who plays alongside or behind him remains up for discussion.
Casemiro and Christian Eriksen, such a promising pairing last season, look off the pace and out of form so far this term. Mason Mount struggled to convince in his first two appearances following his £55m move from Chelsea before being ruled out through injury. Scott McTominay is yet to produce a performance to suggest it was the right decision to keep him beyond this summer, and the recent departure of Fred has left United short of energy and enthusiasm.
Deadline Day loan arrival Sofyan Amrabat and highly-rated teenager Kobbie Mainoo are yet to feature and could well improve the side when they return to fitness, but it is a huge ask for two players without Premier League experience to suddenly hit the ground running.
Ten Hag is still searching for the right balance in United’s midfield. He needs to find it quickly.
Injury crisis: Lack of options in key areas
For all of United’s self-made problems, there is no doubt Ten Hag has also been dealt a tough hand with injuries this season.
The absence of high-profile summer signings has been particularly frustrating for the Dutchman. These were the players supposed to provide the solutions to the issues holding the team back.
There was a galling wait for big-money striker Rasmus Hojlund to make his debut after he arrived from Atalanta with a back problem. Mount made two appearances before succumbing to a thigh complaint.
Amrabat, brought in from Fiorentina to solve United’s defensive midfield concerns, is yet to kick a ball due to back spasms experienced on international duty.
When you add in injuries to both left-backs Luke Shaw and Tyrell Malacia, and Raphael Varane’s absence which has caused disruption at centre-back, it is clear Ten Hag is a long way off fielding what he may consider to be his first-choice XI.
According to Premier Injuries, United’s list of 11 unavailable players is only surpassed by Chelsea, who are without 12 (although fit but unavailable Jadon Sancho and Antony are included).
Certainly, in some areas, the injuries have highlighted poor past recruitment. A club that has spent so much in recent windows should have the depth to deal with missing men. And injuries hamper all sides. But there can be some sympathy for Ten Hag being unable to showcase his plan in full so far this term.
Shaky defence consistently inefficient
United’s defence this season has been consistent – but for all the wrong reasons. Consistently short due to injuries being one of them, but also consistent in the manner in which they concede goals.
Over 700k Super 6 players predicting Man Utd win at Burnley
- Despite Man Utd’s early season form, over 700,000 Super 6 players are backing Erik ten Hag’s men to take three points from Turf Moor.
- Over 350,000 of those are expecting a narrow 2-1 win for the Red Devils.
- Eighty seven players correctly predicted Bayern Munich 4-3 Man Utd on Wednesday and became the newest members of the 100 Club. Could you predict the unpredictable this weekend?
Arsenal, Brighton, Tottenham and Bayern Munich have all scored against Ten Hag’s team from cutbacks into the penalty area. That midfield which is struggling to support Fernandes is not catching up with the play well enough, while those in the back four do not seem to be communicating properly and at times have forgotten the basic art of defending.
And for all of the talk about Andre Onana’s ball-playing ability, his shot-stopping has not been up to scratch. Onana conceded seven times from his opening 10 shots faced in the Premier League before dropping one into his own net at Bayern Munich. Perhaps being lobbed from the halfway line against RC Lens in pre-season was a warning sign, not a freak incident.
Discipline problems and off-field issues
When Ten Hag delivered his infamous 13.8km-run punishment two games into his reign, it hinted at the overdue return of authority at Old Trafford. But it turned out to be the tip of an immovable iceberg – much of it too much for the manager to control.
He navigated a tricky political situation with Cristiano Ronaldo in his early months, emerging victorious after the forward’s public outbursts when his contract was torn up during the World Cup. But other issues have proven more problematic.
Although Mason Greenwood was suspended long before his arrival, now Antony, his most expensive signing, has stepped away from the first team facing further claims in his personal life.
It makes the decision to ostracise Sancho all the riskier. It does not appear Ten Hag has any intention of an embarrassing climbdown, but it leaves him without a single senior natural right winger.
That malaise has added to the crescendo of noise around the club’s mooted takeover, though it has been replaced by a deafening silence in recent months. More of a concern to Ten Hag is the lack of progression it presents.
Harry Kane and Victor Osimhen were both on United’s wanted list this summer, but with their spending habits there was never a realistic prospect of either joining the club. The longer the current owners remain at Old Trafford, the less chance of bridging the gap to the other side of Manchester.
Have major decisions gone against United?
A lot of United fans will suggest their side have been on the wrong end of several key decisions so far this season, so do they have a point?
United were adamant they should have been awarded a penalty during their 2-0 defeat at Tottenham last month when, with the game goalless, Cristian Romero stopped Alejandro Garnacho’s shot with his arm. Two weeks later, Ten Hag lamented a hat-trick of decisions during their 3-1 loss at Arsenal including Garnacho’s late strike – which would have given United a 2-1 lead – being ruled out for offside.
Most recently, a section of United supporters felt aggrieved to see Hojlund’s ‘equaliser’ in their eventual 3-1 defeat by Brighton last weekend disallowed by VAR after the ball went out of play in the build-up. And against Bayern Munich in their Champions League opener on Wednesday, Eriksen conceded a penalty when he was penalised for handball shortly after United had got back into the game at 2-1.
Having said this, Ten Hag’s team can count themselves lucky too. A major decision that went in United’s favour took place during their 1-0 win over Wolves on the opening weekend of the Premier League season. Had Onana been penalised for his heavy collision with Sasa Kalajdzic in stoppage time, United’s start to the new campaign easily could have been worse. That is before you factor in two key incidents going United’s way as they came from 2-0 down to win 3-2 against Nottingham Forest on August 26.
Does United’s poor start rest with Ten Hag?
Many reasons have been put forward for United’s malaise – the Glazers, a perceived lack of investment in the squad and misfortune with injuries among them – but how much responsibility should Ten Hag take?
After all, the manager has been in place for over a year and overseen three transfer windows. The scale of the rebuild he inherited was vast but he has been allowed to move on players not in his plans, such as Ronaldo, David De Gea and Fred, while Maguire has been stripped of the captaincy and sidelined.
Ten Hag has also been empowered to bring in players that he knows, with Onana, Amrabat, Antony and Martinez all having worked under the Dutchman at previous clubs.
Ten Hag’s overhaul has come at a net spend of more than £330m yet many of the players that he seemingly handpicked are not matching expectations.
Antony – the most expensive of all Ten Hag’s signings at £86m – underwhelmed last season and is now unavailable due to troubling off-field allegations, Onana’s start to life at United has not been impressive and Martinez’s form has nosedived.
Ten Hag’s fingerprints are increasingly visible on this United side, meaning it is getting harder for him to avoid scrutiny for their failings.
Follow live updates of Man Utd’s trip to Burnley on Sky Sports’ digital platforms from 6.30pm on Saturday, kick-off 8pm. Watch free highlights shortly after full-time.
September 23: Burnley (A) – Premier League, kick-off 8pm
September 26: Crystal Palace (H) – Carabao Cup, kick-off 8pm, live on Sky Sports
September 30: Crystal Palace (H) – Premier League, kick-off 3pm
October 3: Galatasaray (H) – Champions League, kick-off 8pm
October 7: Brentford (H) – Premier League, kick-off 3pm
October 21: Sheffield United (A) – Premier League, kick-off 8pm
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