Erik ten Hag is confident in his ability to turn around Manchester United’s fortunes despite defeats in their two opening Premier League fixtures. Unfortunately for the new head coach, the 4-0 loss to Brentford showed his players are failing to implement his style effectively, sapping morale to its lowest point at Old Trafford.
It is admirable that Ten Hag wants to replicate the formula that has worked for him elsewhere to make huge strides at United in the long term, but with a fixture against Liverpool awaiting on Monday, another heavy loss could have significant ramifications. Trying to adjust to a new set of tactical and stylistic rules is hard enough for footballers at the best of times but when low on confidence it is almost impossible.
To reach a stage where Ten Hag can make a real impact on the United squad he will have to work to their strengths in the short term. A pragmatic approach could help a squad creaking under the pressure of being Manchester United players in a rut at the bottom of the Premier League table. Casemiro’s experience and footballing smarts should help a demoralized group when he is available, but overloading those lacking belief with intricate plans is not beneficial.
Those who have played under Ten Hag say his methods take time to get used to. United fans are behind Ten Hag, knowing the breadth of the task, but if the first few months continue along these lines as the Dutchman waits for everything to click into place, then he might not be permitted the requisite time to correct the years of wrongs at United.
If Brentford are capable of picking apart United, then Liverpool will be very confident of doing the same with interest. Jürgen Klopp’s side have drawn their first two games and will be looking to lay down a marker against a side with two defeats.
Scott McTominay and Fred are not the long-term solution to United’s midfield problems, but Ten Hag has to work with what is available against Liverpool. Neither are able to provide sharp passing and quick progress up the pitch. One could have to partner Casemiro, and Ten Hag may want to test himself by converting the duo into being able to play something akin to his style but that might be a step too far and needs to accept their strengths rather than trying to correct in- built flaws.
Lisandro Martínez was withdrawn after 45 minutes at Brentford but looks capable on the ball and smart enough to adapt to the direct nature of the Premier League, and in the coming weeks could be used in midfield alongside Casemiro.
When Stefan Savic joined Manchester City, he struggled in the air and was bullied by numerous strikers, leaving him debilitated on the pitch. Despite his failings, Roberto Mancini insisted on putting him in the firing line when short on confidence. His City career never recovered. The Montenegrin, however, has gone on to have an impressive career with Fiorentina and Atlético Madrid, where he was managed with greater understanding and allowed to grow. Martínez will be targeted in the air regardless of the opponent, and it may be sensible to adjust his position for now to avoid ever-lasting damage.
Sometimes it takes a backward step to allow a team to go forward. Under Ole Gunnar Solskjær United were set up to counterattack, accepting their limitations. Strikers win matches but defenses win titles – not that United should be too focused on the latter. If they manage to put together a sturdier defense for Liverpool’s visit, or at least one that does not concede four in 25 minutes, then it can help boost confidence, especially with the robust Casemiro to be added subsequently. They were disorganized at Brentford and were playing out from the back with a goalkeeper unable to provide the required distribution.
Having Christian Eriksen on the pitch at the same time as Bruno Fernandes is a luxury this United cannot afford. They are fine players but Ten Hag, to help with stability, may need to decide between the two. Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea mix athleticism with skill on the pitch and United cannot survive on the latter alone, especially given how ineffective dominating possession has been for them against Brighton and Brentford.
Crystal Palace showed Liverpool are vulnerable to the counter; Wilfried Zaha breezed through a gap to score and United can use that weakness. The options of Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, Anthony Martial and Anthony Elanga should be able to cause any side problems down the wings and can help United get up the pitch quicker if they go more direct. They provide something Cristiano Ronaldo cannot: constant pressing. His legendary status is not in doubt but his inability to put defenders under pressure over the course of 90 minutes in a struggling United side means it may be time to make a tough decision.
Ten Hag has not thus far been given the players required to reverse the downward spiral United have endured in recent years. The squad is very similar to the one that struggled to sixth spot last season and looks unable to adapt quickly to the methods Ten Hag is trying to instill, so it may be a case of better the Red Devils you know. The scattergun approach over transfers to appease Ten Hag is an intriguing one. It is hard to plan when the targets are very different in what they offer a team. Adrien Rabiot and Casemiro are certainly not the same type of player. With less than two weeks until the transfer window closes, few can guess what the squad will look like.
Mikel Arteta has added Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko to his ranks, two 25-year-olds who know what it takes to win the Premier League. United will be hoping for a similar impact from Casemiro. It has taken numerous windows for Arsenal to sculpt the squad they want and United will need to accept they are in the same boat and that panic buys in this window may not help them down the line.
Simplifying things in the short term to restore United to a level they can build from makes the most sense for Ten Hag but it will mean going against his ideals. As a person, Ten Hag is direct and to the point, and for now it might be best if his team are.