First, the good news: Manchester United started on the crest of a wave. A run of 11 wins from 12 games took Erik ten Hag’s men to fourth in the Premier League table, set up a Carabao Cup semi-final with Nottingham Forest, and Reading to reach the fourth round of the FA Cup.
Said run included favorable opposition, but in this series of wins the team played closer to the fan-preferred “ideal” United. There is a greater pace to the attack as well as a sense of defensive solidity. The win over Fulham came from a last-minute winner from academy graduate Alejandro Garnacho through a moment of clever wing play. They are on their longest winning run since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer began his interim tenure in January 2019, and are the only English club still competing in four competitions.
Ten Hag look like an assured hire and have formed a capable football team out of what looked like a disfigured and downtrodden collective. Marcus Rashford is one of the best strikers in the country and critics have gone from writing about Lisandro Martinez’s height to marveling at his defensive timing.
Almost every interview with a United player includes a section where they talk about the improved discipline and collective team spirit their manager has brought, and Ten Hag himself talks about the high standards and rules that must be maintained in order for progress to be maintained. Many observers had United as outside contenders for the top four positions before the season started. Still, in early January, analytics website FiveThirtyEight gave United a 59 percent chance of qualifying for the Champions League – the third highest probability behind Arsenal and Manchester City.
That’s the good news. Things on the surface and environment at Manchester United are positive for now.
Now for the not-so-good bubbling under the surface.
It starts with the club’s dire financial position, where a series of debtors must be paid before future projects can match Ten Hag’s ambitions. The manager wants a new striker for his team, but more than £300 million ($365 million) is owed in transfer payments to other clubs and the Glazer ownership appear reluctant to give the green light to another big payment to to get the type of player he wants. A proposed redevelopment of Old Trafford is thought to be on hold since the United owner’s November 2022 statement to “consider all strategic alternatives, including new investment in the club, a sale or other transactions involving the company “.
There is a gap between Ten Hag’s needs and his needs, which means that the wave that United fans are currently riding is at risk of crashing. By the manager’s own admission, Anthony Martial cannot currently cope with the physical burden of playing three 90-minute games in a single week – at a time when his club is scheduled to play 12 games (including the Manchester derby) to play between now and the end of February. Despite Martial’s (relative) lack of goals and limited minutes this season, he remains almost irreplaceable within the United set-up, with a style of play that is difficult to replicate without going shopping in the transfer market. Wout Weghorst joins on a short-term loan, but the team still lacks the kind of 20-goal-per-season figurehead their rivals possess.
A midfield pivot of Christian Eriksen and Casemiro is a significant upgrade from that of the “McFred” (Scott McTominay and Fred) partnerships of the past, but both men will be subject to more aggressive pressing systems against Arsenal, Manchester City and Barcelona in the coming weeks.
United remain a work in progress and are slowly adapting to a style of play. Their manager has to juggle a number of boards on and off the field, and there are questions about whether his team is ready to run so soon after going forward again.
This brings us to a thought-provoking question: Is there value in forfeiting one of their competitive goals so they can redirect energy to something else?
The last time United “tanked” was in the 2016-17 season, when Jose Mourinho prioritized victory in the Europa League (and subsequent Champions League qualification) over chasing a top-four finish in the league. United went on a five-game winless run in the Premier League from the end of April until the final game of the season, but reached the Europa League final, eventually defeating Ajax and winning the club’s most recent piece of silverware.
There were nervous moments, such as a last-minute chance for John Guidetti that would have won Celta Vigo a delicate semi-final, but history sees Mourinho’s venture as more successful than the 2019-20 season, when United finished third finished in the league and suffered defeat in three cup semi-finals. Tanking can work for Manchester United, as long as you win the trophy you choose to prioritize; sixth place in the Premier League standings from 2016-17 has faded from memory.
Ten Hag himself has given little indication that he is the sort of manager who would forego a cup competition to focus on league performance. The 52-year-old gave a “we want to win every game” response when asked about his Europa League goals during the group stage, and has spent much of his time in the FA and League Cup studying the format of each competition. compliment. Winning tends to lead to more winning, and this promising run of form has allowed Ten Hag to earn goodwill and buy-in from players and the fans.
By trying to do everything now, he is building a group that is better equipped to win more things in the future. A Europa League play-off against Barcelona means progress in the continental tournament is more difficult than games against Reading and Nottingham Forest, but if United are to win any silverware in the coming seasons, they will need to get into the habit of defeating the most challenging of opposition .
Champions League qualification and other glories will be the ultimate goal for this group of players, but it cannot be achieved against “winning” teams alone. There is merit in prioritizing your goals to minimize potential risks and maximize returns, but there is a risk in limiting the amount of rewards you can win.
(Top photo: Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images)