The Cracks are Beginning to Show at Old Trafford
Manchester United’s dip in form continues to be called into question as we enter the business end of the season. Fresh off of the international break many fans would have expected a better performance against Newcastle. But, at St James’ park United looked tired, devoid of ideas and creativity, and were lacking pace.
Against Brentford, despite what many would consider a dominant performance, United still looked a far cry from their best selves. Compared to a few months ago, they still looked tired, slow in transition, vulnerable at the back, poor in possession through the middle of the pitch, and lacking in communication. And, yet again, we were reliant on a moment of brilliance from our talismanic goal scorer, Marcus Rashford.
These are all qualities that have steadily been creeping back into United’s game ever since the back to back games against Leeds in February. There are a lot of positives to be taken from this season. But, personally I have no interest in placating this team with excuses any longer. It has been more then a decade of complacency. And for the first time in that period, United have the coach and the players to impress. Yet fans are still left wanting.
I, for one am tired of fueling the perpetual excuse factory, even in the face of a victory. But, as a United fan I am obliged to always assume the benefit of the doubt.
Weighing the Good with the Bad
Many pundits, fans, and media outlets alike have taken notice of the record Manchester United has maintained since the world cup. They see the uptick in performances from Marcus Rashford and David DeGea. And we can all see the spine of a team forming. Mentality is improving and players who were previously under performing are shining.
Fred, McTominay, Dalot, Wan-Bissaka, Garnacho, even Weghorst have all been punching above their weight. While Shaw, Dalot, AWB, Rashford, Sancho and DeGea have all improved dramatically since ten Hag’s arrival.
United’s progress this season has been remarkable, down right unbelievable. But progress, no matter how profound and consistent should never justify not holding this team accountable. Many will look at the Fulham and Newcastle games and only just begin to call the team out on their performances. While others are content to forget the performances of late following a commanding win against Brentford on Wednesday.
But, truth be told, United have only been getting worse and worse as 2023 kicks into high gear. If not for Rashford, DeGea, Casemiro and a whole lot of sheer dumb luck United would have lost at least half their games since the Leeds draw in early February.
The Casimero Effect
Part of that has been down to Casemiro being such an important figure. It’s no surprise that our downturn in form coincided with his first red card in the Crystal Palace game, only days before the Leeds game. Since his first red card United have played 14 games. After his second red card, he has now missed 6 of those 14 games and will miss 7 of 15 in total.
He has been our best player all season. But, thanks to two terrible refereeing decisions we will have to be without him for almost half of United’s matches during the busiest part of the season.
However, while Casemiro’s absence from the team has been disruptive to United’s form, it is far from the only reason for our accumulation of poor performances. For that I blame fatigue. Both mental and physical.
United seriously lack depth. Without Casemiro and Rashford in the team the red devils struggle to win games. Each of United’s draws and losses this season was without one or both of them in the team.
Manchester United Dip in Form Down to a Lack of Depth
Yet again, there is no surprise that the teams creativity and spread of goals has dropped since Erkisen was injured. While, additionally, when Varane has been injured, United have looked lost at the back.
Simply put, Erik ten Hag can only trust a handful of players to perform week in, week out. As a result, when those players are injured, suspended or sick United haven’t looked their best. Since the World Cup United have had to contend with injuries to Dalot, Eriksen, Varane, Rashford, and Martial. Illness twice from Arron Wan-Bissaka, Luke Shaw, and McTominay and once from Dalot.
And Casemiro’s suspensions.
That tallies up to potentially eight of United’s starting eleven not being available for every match since the return from the World Cup.
United Have Been Scraping By
I don’t need to take the time to outline every one of United’s shite performances recently. For that you can read my last article about the Bruno Fernandes captaincy debate.
But, it has been no secret that United have been starting games poorly. The Liverpool performance was proof enough at how bad this team can still be. Where as we got lucky against Fulham who essentially gifted us the game after imploding. Newcastle was perhaps the most contemptable performance United have put in all season.
Even the games United have been winning, have been won by the grace of the losing team not the virtues of United. Thankfully, Rashford’s form has meant that hero ball has been working. And when present, the spine of DeGea, Casimero, Varane and Martinez has saved United defensively so many times.
But, this is clearly not how ten Hag wants his team to play. He wants fluid football with a high press and a fast counter attack.
Fatigue to Blame for Manchester United Dip in Form
In my not so humble opinion, I believe this all adds up to one source of United’s problems. Fatigue.
The amount of ground covered by the team as a whole has dropped. The number of chances created per game has dropped. Expected goals per games has dropped. The number of chances conceded and goals conceded per game has gone up. Average possession has dropped as has passing percentage.
United’s away from has been terrible this season, amassing a record of 11-3-6. That equates to a 55% win away record. That means that 6 of United’s 8 losses this season have come away from home while 3 of our 6 draws have come away from home.
The numbers are all the more exaggerated when Casemiro, and to some extent Eriksen, aren’t in the team.
Manchester United is clearly too reliant on too few players. Their reliance on so few individuals overworks the core group of players both mentally and physically. It exposes them to more matches, there for more potential for injury or suspension. It also leads to the bit part players not being in form when called upon due to a lack of match time.
The Glazers are the Root of the Problem, Again
But, before you go blaming ten Hag for not rotating enough or getting the tactics wrong. Or before you point your finger at the players for not giving more effort, there is another that deserves the brunt of our blame. The Glazers.
Fans can play the blame game all day. It is our right to do so. However, very few players have painted themselves in flying colors as of late. Such a collective digression in performances can hardly ever be equated to a single player or players performances.
Manchester United’s owners, in true traditional fashion, have made some terrible decisions in the last two transfer windows. One being, not selling Ronaldo in the summer. Second, was not replacing Ronaldo in January. Third was not bringing in better back up in midfield when Van de Beek and Eriksen picked up long term injuries.
Glazers Not Interested in Investing More
In spite of ten Hag’s best efforts we were forced into bargain bin transfers in January, yet again. The Glazers have one foot out the door at Old Trafford. Not to mention they have no desire to invest any more money into United. They would rather get financing from an investment firm or outside sponsor rather then put any of their own money into it.
They have also maxed out the clubs ‘credit card’ so they cant ‘charge’ any improvements to the club or the team. Hence the process they are currently in where they are feeling out potential buyers or investors.
Erik ten Hag has asked for the maximum from the players every day. With little ability or desire to rotate, and imperfect replacement signings, players were always going to succumb to fatigue. When faced with fatigue players don’t make decisions as quickly, their focus drifts easier, they are not as sharp.
Form can’t Fight Physiology
However, unlike under Ole and Ragnick, these poor performances have not been a question mentality, willpower, intrinsic motivation, tactics or coaching.
They are a question of physiology. The body can only take so much. Manchester United have played more games this season than any other team in Europe. IF the team make it to the FA Cup final and the Europa League final, they will have played 65 games this season. Again a number not bettered by any other football team in Europe.
The demand on the Manchester United players is astronomical. So, they should be forgiven when nature begins to take its course. The only way for progress to continue is if that pressure is relieved. That can only happen with a deeper squad. One where ten Hag has as much quality to call upon off the bench as on the field.
Ten Hag needs quality in depth for his methods to work because of how much he demands from his players. Until the Glazer’s, or future owners, invest more into the caliber of player deserving of the United kit this downturn in performance levels will only serve as a warning for future seasons.
Current Dip in Form Only the Beginning
What’s worse is we can likely expect more results like the ones against Fulham, Newcastle and Liverpool. United have proven their fallibility still seethes under the surface. While the Glazers have solidified our fate with a lack of reinforcements. Fortunately, in spite of my pessimism, I don’t suspect that it is going to be all doom and gloom.
After all, in this time period during the teams decline in from, United have still maintained a record of 9-3-2. A record bettered only by City and Arsenal in the Premier League. I believe we have seen enough evidence from this team so far this season to suggest that they can keep winning. Even if they have to win ugly.
I say, keep winning, not necessarily perform better. A hallmark of Sir Alex Ferguson’s teams was the ability to win ugly. To win when you’re not at your best and in the face of absolute adversity.
However, with this crop of players, that type of approach can only keep us in the race for top four. It cant help us win a league, and it hasn’t been helping us cement a spot in the Champions League qualifying spots. To take that next step United need quality signings.
Yet again, as United fans we are left wanting and waiting for better days. For now fans must remember all the good that has come from this season. We also must remember that accountability starts at the top of the tree. At United, that is the Glazers and Richard Arnold. Whom have consistently shown they lack the tools necessary to lead this team to greatness without the crutch of Ferguson in the dugout.
Until the Glazers are a figment of United fans’ imaginations, only hope or blissful naivety can provide any hint of optimism for future trophies. Until that future arrives, United will always be plagued with false dawns and an aggrandization of the could have, should have, would haves.
Glory, Glory Man United.