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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Will Unwin at Old Trafford

Erik ten Hag struggles to impose clear style on mundane Manchester United

Bruno Fernandes battles for the ball at Old Trafford
A narrow 1-0 win against Luton will do little to assuage concerns over Manchester United’s direction under Erik ten Hag. Photograph: Robbie Jay Barratt/AMA/Getty Images

“We want to do it in the United way,” Erik ten Hag proclaimed before the start of the season. This concept was supposed to be “aggressive” and “dynamic” but most importantly it would “surprise” supporters.

Twelve Premier League games and a seventh win by one goal later, the only surprising element is how mundane the football has become. It required a winner from Victor Lindelöf to secure the points against Luton, the third time this season United have needed a centre‑back to settle the result.

Luton gave United as much of the ball as they desired, knowing they lacked the creativity to do any damage against a team with a back five and another bank of four ahead of them. Inviting pressure can often be a team’s downfall but United’s 65% possession brought some degree of control but little excitement. The historic aura of Old Trafford still means visiting teams will play in a compact manner, especially as the personnel available to Ten Hag look more suited to counterattacking than short, sharp passing.

Everyone will celebrate the victory, a pressure-relieving result going into the international break. Like they did when Scott McTominay scored two late goals for a comeback triumph over Brentford at Old Trafford. That was one of many supposed moments to kickstart a forgettable season. The same was meant to happen when Harry Maguire’s header downed Copenhagen to earn their first Champions League win, but they have not built on that either and face an uphill struggle to reach the knockout stages.

False dawns are becoming a stock in trade at Old Trafford. The hope is that by grinding out results it will provide a platform and confidence boost, but they had only won consecutive league matches once before this and face a difficult trip to Everton in a fortnight, followed by a trip to Istanbul to play Galatasaray in a must-win Champions League group game.

Against Luton, United had 15 shots but only four of those were on target. Admittedly, Thomas Kaminski needed to make two impressive saves from Rasmus Højlund, who is yet to score in nine Premier League appearances, and Scott McTominay to keep things tight, but ultimately it was another conservative United display.

One moment of frustration among many for Ten Hag
One moment of frustration among many for Ten Hag. Photograph: Ash Donelon/Manchester United/Getty Images

Højlund was isolated for most of the game but held up the ball well and had the movement to make chances on the couple of occasions that the delivery from wide was suitable for a No 9. In effect he was up against three Luton centre-backs, but he coped with the physicality of the opposition as his Premier League education continued.

Christian Eriksen started in front of United’s defence, operating as a quarterback; he was allowed time on the ball to pick passes but they were often long towards a static forward line. Luton saw no issue with the Dane being able to dictate play because it was neither dynamic nor aggressive. There is no one in United’s midfield who can speed things up at the moment. Ahead of him was McTominay, who provides plenty of energy but whose skillset does not involve incisive passing, while Bruno Fernandes looked impatient in possession.

The most dynamic midfielder on display at Old Trafford was Ross Barkley, who was able to carry the ball in the centre of the pitch to take opponents out of the game and break the lines, but he was let down by his passing and lack of support in front of him. Clearly the former Chelsea player is not of the standard required to make a difference against a team with Champions League ambitions, but someone with his attributes would be a smart addition to the United squad.

Whenever the ball made it out to Alejandro Garnacho on the left wing, Old Trafford rose in hope. The Argentinian is clearly United’s most dangerous player and currently their main attacking threat. He dragged players out of position to open up space for teammates, something his colleagues could not capitalise on. Garnacho is willing to keep pushing on down the wing, however many times he might fail. Issa Kaboré was a tough opponent for the teenager but that did not put him off, a sign of his strong mentality.

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Marcus Rashford has been unable to replicate his form of last season, when he scored 17 league goals. To accommodate Garnacho against Luton, Rashford started on the right wing rather than his preferred position on the left. He was anonymous until Ten Hag granted him his wish of a swap to the opposite flank. This woke him up and he looked immediately dangerous and soon after created the winner from a corner, as a set piece once again rescued United.

Throughout his tenure Ten Hag has shown himself to be a man of substance, but sooner rather than later he needs to add some style to his work or “the United way” will need redefining.

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