A season to forget so far for Manchester United brought a predictably dismal end to 2023.
Proposed new club director Sir Dave Brailsford sat next to legendary former manager Sir Alex Ferguson for the latest painful staging post in an awful campaign that has already seen United lose an incredible 14 games – the most before the end of the year in a single season since 1930-31, when they finished bottom.
Big-money signings are not delivering and others with huge reputations are also underperforming.
As has been the case for the best part of a month now, Ten Hag has responded to a defeat by saying he cannot use injuries as an excuse yet at the same time insisting results will come when he gets the likes of Casemiro, Lisandro Martinez, Mason Mount, Victor Lindelof, Rasmus Hojlund and Harry Maguire back.
Other observers are far less forgiving in their judgement, with former captain Gary Neville telling Sky Sports: “Manchester United are back to their worst, back to what they are – inconsistent and awful.”
Just how bad has United’s season been?
- Manchester United have never had fewer points, nor scored fewer goals, at this point of a Premier League season.
- Only in 1930 (28), 1972 (25) and 1921 (24) have they lost more games in a calendar year than the 21 defeats they suffered in 2023.
- They have lost nine out of their opening 20 league games for the first time since 1989-90. United only lost nine times in the league in Ten Hag’s first season in charge.
- This season they have lost more games (14) than they have won (12) in all competitions.
- United have lost five out of eight games in December, scoring six times and conceding 12.
- Their best run of the season is three successive victories. They have won two games in a row just twice.
‘No team can deal with so many injuries’
Ten Hag told Brailsford – a key figure for new club co-owners Ineos – he did not want to speak to him until there was a gap in his side’s schedule.
That will come in January, when United have only one Premier League game – against Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford in a fortnight’s time – after which they have a week off as part of the Premier League’s winter break.
For Financial Fair Play reasons, United’s January transfer window will be quiet unless there are significant outgoings – Jadon Sancho’s future remains unresolved – and as part of the deal with the Glazer family, Ineos would have to be told of any business, even though they cannot legally run the club.
Whether Ten Hag will want any interruptions next week is open to question, with his side’s next game at League One side Wigan in the FA Cup.
They memorably knocked Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City out of the cup as a League One club in 2018 and Latics manager Shaun Maloney scored the only goal when Wigan beat United for the only time in 2012.
A repeat of that loss at the DW Stadium on 8 January is unthinkable in the current climate.
As for Ten Hag, he can only hope he is right when he says a fit squad – which he is hoping to have at his disposal by mid-January – will make all the difference.
“It is clear we are not consistent,” he said. “Every time I say it doesn’t matter how we line up, we have to win, but the routines are not there because every time we have to swap. Football is quick, so you need communication in a split second. When the players are returning, I am sure this side will be stronger.- I believe.
“They [Ineos] know me. They know when I have a squad available the results will be there. This is part of a project. We were overperforming last year, this year we are underperforming. We have to step up and I have to lead that process.
“No team can deal with so many issues and injuries we have.”
Midfielder Christian Eriksen added: “This season in general has been one step forward and two steps back and it felt like that today. Things will heal and get better.”
“The most boring team in the league?” – how pundits reacted
Former defender Neville told Sky Sports: “They [Ineos] will make a decision on the manager before the end of the season, I have no doubt, even though they will keep him in charge until the end of the season. They have been so poor though and if that continues, Erik ten Hag will find himself under real pressure.
“Ten Hag did a very good job in his first season, now the new ownership will be on a watching brief and Brailsford will look at what this club is and he is not going to like what he sees.
“I have more optimism under the new owners. They are currently operating without a sporting director, without a CEO and without a head of recruitment. What club in the world does that?
“Ten Hag is operating without a management team around him, which is incredible to think. He has been handed the keys to the safe and that shouldn’t happen.”
Ex-Blackburn Rovers striker Chris Sutton told BBC Radio 5 Live: “I had someone message me earlier asking if Manchester United are the most boring team in the Premier League. You know what, it’s hard to argue with that.
“The thing that troubles me with Erik ten Hag is I don’t know what game he was watching when he comes out and answers like that. There comes a time when he has to take responsibility. He has spent over £400m.”
Former Wales midfielder Robbie Savage told BBC Radio 5 Live: “You are looking at the standard of players like Antony. He will develop but at Manchester United is the number of goals and assists he has good enough? No.
“Who has been saying, ‘let’s go and buy Antony for £90m’ when he’s worth £30m? Or Casemiro for £60m? And also, how many of the players who have been brought in have increased their value?”
‘Ten Hag needs to be moved on’ – what you said
James: This is so bad. No clue, no plan, no identity, and no desire. It’s so bad. The 3-2 versus Villa papered over the cracks again. ETH needs to be moved on. The players don’t understand him and what he wants. So obvious. Disgusting how the richest club in the world has the worst elite team.
Anon: I can’t see ETH surviving much longer. It’s clear the players are a big part of the problem but I can’t see what he is trying to achieve. I don’t know what the style is, there seems no plan, no effort, players stropping at one another. Maybe Ineos will think ‘a new manager for a new start’.
Martin: All the hype on Tuesday about United having top-four hopes, welcome back to reality. Be lucky to be in the top half of the table.
Ben: One thing that really, really bugs me watching the conduct of United’s players over the last few years is the general demeanour and attitude towards one another throughout a game. We witnessed Rashford doing it against Villa to Hojlund, stropping and having a go. For goodness sake, support each other, give your team-mates a lift! I expect that for £200k+ a week…
James: The only thing I don’t understand is how on earth Man Utd will be seventh in the Premier League after this match.
Andrew: United take off Mainoo half-time. No defensive midfielder on the pitch. Concede two goals from the defensive midfielder position. This is not rocket science.
Nigel: Sums it up for me. Forest were fighting to the end, we just looked like we were turning up again and hoping for the best. We can’t continue to paper over cracks.