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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Jamie Jackson

Can Erik ten Hag fix ailing Manchester United in time to save his job?

Erik ten Hag on the Molineux touchline during Manchester United’s win at Wolves.
Erik ten Hag on the Molineux touchline during Manchester United’s win at Wolves. Photograph: Marc Atkins/Getty Images

Rock bottom of Erik ten Hag’s wishlist as Manchester United’s manager battles to keep his job: the zero fresh recruits he was given when the winter transfer window shut on Thursday to leave him with the same misfiring squad plagued by uneven form, off-field issues, injury and illness. As Ten Hag seeks to impress Sir Jim Ratcliffe, the club’s new 25% shareholder, United were in seventh place before this weekend’s fixtures with 35 points after 22 games, with a goal difference of -4.

Ten Hag’s Premier League campaign is fast threatening to overtake the annus horribilis of David Moyes’s 34-league match tenure of 2013-14. When the Scot was sacked on 22 April of that season, United had 57 points and were also in seventh. They ended with 64 points, 22 behind the champions, Manchester City.

As United host West Ham on Sunday their 1.59 points per match has them on course to finish with 60. Moyes at least had been bolstered in his winter window by Juan Mata’s arrival from Chelsea for a then club record £37.5m. This January, there was not enough cash down the back of the United sofa for any cut-price loan deals, unlike 12 months ago when Wout Weghorst from Burnley, Marcel Sabitzer (Bayern Munich) and Jack Butland (Crystal Palace) were signed.

On Thursday, Kobbie Mainoo’s 97th-minute winner at Wolves handed United a euphoric 4-3 victory but came after they allowed a two-goal lead to slip for the second consecutive match, following on from Sunday’s 4-2 FA Cup win at Newport  County.

A concerned Ten Hag said: “We should have managed the situation better.” It is the tale of the campaign and clearly the squad is riven by faultlines.

The first-choice goalkeeper, André Onana, was shaky again at Wolves and has cost too many points this season, while his private jet journey to the Africa Cup of Nations the day before Cameroon’s opening match seemed to underscore his farcical season. The plane was forced to land a three-hour drive away and he did not play against Guinea. Starting the next game, against Senegal, Onana made another goal-conceding error and was dropped for the rest of the tournament.

Onana is at least one of the few United players unfamiliar with the crammed treatment room. All four full-backs – Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Diogo Dalot, Tyrell Malacia and Luke Shaw – and the five centre-backs – Lisandro Martínez, Raphaël Varane, Victor Lindelöf, Jonny Evans, and Harry Maguire – have suffered injuries. What must bother Ten Hag is whether, Shaw and Martínez apart, any are good enough for where he wishes to take United.

The midfield also requires serious surgery. Mason Mount has been a regular absentee due to two unspecified conditions and his 12 appearances have been tepid. The loanee Sofyan Amrabat has underwhelmed while a knee problem has hampered an ageing Christian Eriksen, 32 on Valentine’s Day, and he, like others, has contended with illness.

The club’s second-highest earner, Casemiro, is not the player of last season and recently returned from an ankle problem, while Ten Hag’s assessment of Scott McTominay was indicated by his being for sale in the summer. Donny van de Beek’s disappointing four years have led to his second loan move – to Eintracht Frankfurt – and, after 10 appearances, Ten Hag decided Hannibal Mejbri can also play elsewhere until the close season: Sevilla.

Two bright lights are Bruno Fernandes, United’s best player, and Mainoo, whose strike at Wolves followed an FA Cup goal at Newport, but the forward unit is still a work in progress: not ideal at this juncture of the season.

Kobbie Mainoo
Kobbie Mainoo has been a shining light for Erik ten Hag. Photograph: Ash Donelon/Manchester United/Getty Images

On the books are nine attackers: Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, Antony, Anthony Martial, Alejandro Garnacho, Facundo Pellistri, Amad Diallo, Mason Greenwood and Rasmus Højlund. Four – Rashford, Sancho, Antony and Greenwood – have been embroiled in off-field problems, and three – Greenwood, Sancho and Pellistri – farmed out.

Rashford was dropped for the Newport game after missing training on the previous Friday after allegedly partying in Belfast into the early hours of that morning. He has five goals and six assists. Antony was given leave of absence in September to address allegations about his private conduct, which he denies, and did not start seven matches. The goal at Newport broke his duck for the season after 23 appearances. Greenwood is on a year-long deal at Getafe having not pulled on a United jersey since January 2022, for well-known non-football reasons.

In August, Sancho made three substitute appearances (total, 76 minutes) before joining Borussia Dortmund in January for the rest of the season after clashing with his manager. Pellestri, a 22-year-old middling talent, went on loan for a second time – to Granada – last month, after no goals in his 14 games, while Amad has played once – for 36 minutes in the defeat at Nottingham Forest on 30 December.

In his eighth United season, Martial has two goals in 18 matches and is out for about three months after groin surgery. Slightly better are the five goals in 30 outings from Garnacho and the 9 in 27 from the £74m summer arrival, Højlund.

Ten Hag has to carry the can for some of United’s dysfunctionality as he is in charge of team style, ironing out the in-game management he bemoans, and oversaw the signings of Antony, Onana, Casemiro, Malacia, Mount, Evans, Amrabat and Eriksen. But Ratcliffe may still take into consideration all that the manager has had to firefight and cut him some slack, though for how long is open to question.

If Ten Hag is to survive until the next transfer window his fate is intertwined with a lurching group of players who have won consecutive Premier League games just twice this season. Against West Ham he has to start improving this record.

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