·22 September 2023
·22 September 2023
The task for every subsequent Manchester United manager has been to emulate Sir Alex Ferguson. Erik ten Hag did it twice in a night. Neither was cause for celebration. When Serge Gnabry scored Bayern Munich’s second goal, it was the first time since Ferguson’s team of 2001 that United had conceded twice in five successive games. When Mathys Tel added a late fourth, it meant the class of 2023 became the second United side to let in four goals in a Champions League game: the first was Ferguson’s 1994 group, when eviscerated by Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona ‘Dream Team’.
That could be explained in part by the regulations about foreign players at the time and Ferguson’s disastrous decision to omit Peter Schmeichel; this in part by a different kind of goalkeeping error, Andre Onana’s blunder for Leroy Sane’s opener. Yet defensive difficulties have been a constant of late.
To paraphrase Clive Tyldesley, who commentated on both the most famous and the most recent meetings of Bayern and United, can Manchester United concede? They always concede. Even their lone clean sheet this season had a fortunate feel and highlighted issues. Wolves, the lowest scorers in last season’s Premier League, had 23 shots, the most of any visiting side at Old Trafford in the top flight since 2005. They received an apology from PGMOL after they were not awarded a penalty.
Since then, Onana has retrieved the ball from his net 14 times. United have shown they can concede early – they had never let in two goals as early into a Premier League game until they went two behind Nottingham Forest inside four minutes – and late, being breached twice in injury time by Arsenal. They have conceded in spurts, with quickfire doubles coming at their expense in three of the last four games, and at regular intervals. Twice in the Allianz Arena, they conceded soon after scoring.
If the diagnosis on the opening night against Wolves was that the midfield was malfunctioning, with the introduction of Mason Mount leaving Casemiro exposed, subsequent matches have indicated there are also issues in goal, in the back four and on the wings that have led to opponents scoring.
Ten Hag was asked in the Allianz Arena if the problem lay in the mentality or injuries. Both, he replied: certainly United had an alternative back four on the treatment table, in Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Raphael Varane, Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw, plus another sidelined left-back, in Tyrell Malacia. Certainly every game he misses accentuates Varane’s importance and his status as United’s best defender; that he is ageing and injury-prone, however, offers scant consolation.
But as he defended Onana, pointing out the summer signing made several second-half saves in Munich, Ten Hag inadvertently underlined that the damage could have been greater. Bayern hit the post twice. Four goals might have been eight.
As Ten Hag suggested that United could have done more to halt Sane before he shot, he touched on a recurring theme: United are opened up too easily on the flanks. All three Brighton goals stemmed from the wings, when Ten Hag’s decision to field a side without cover in front of his full-backs backfired. So did Bayern’s first two, with Jamal Musiala embarking on a storming solo run. At left-back, United are discovering that Sergio Reguilon, the emergency signing given a baptism of fire, is more of an attacking full-back. On the right, Diogo Dalot is struggling; Bayern, with their quick wingers, might have been a match to suit Wan-Bissaka, had he been fit. But neither Marcus Rashford nor, when available, Antony is the most diligent at shielding full-backs and low crosses and cutbacks can lead to goals against United.
So can quick breaks. If, at times, United are chasing games and that is a factor in Brighton’s third goal and Bayern’s fourth, there is nevertheless the sense that Casemiro can flounder when surrounded by open space and opposition runners. In different ways, Nottingham Forest’s first goal and Arsenal’s second reflected shortcomings from set-pieces – including United’s own corner.
Taiwo Awoniyi’s goal was one of several that Onana perhaps could have saved. Declan Rice’s crucial strike for Arsenal was one of two when Ten Hag’s auxiliary centre-back partnership consisted of Maguire and Jonny Evans; a Leicester 2017 reunion consisting of one player low on confidence and another who might have retired. Ludicrously, United were one more injury away from starting Evans in Munich.
And yet he is not the centre-back providing the most cause for concern. Neither is Maguire: the frequent scapegoat has only played 23 minutes this season.
Victor Lindelof belongs in the bracket of the out of form. Lisandro Martinez is in still worse shape: substituted three times already this season, often threatening to get sent off, his commitment now looks like rashness, last season’s cult hero like this season’s calamity. That Ten Hag has faith in his former Ajax players, whether Martinez or Onana, is not in doubt, but his recruitment strategy now leaves him more open to criticism.
In one respect, United may argue that nothing has changed. Last season, defensive problems were restricted to defining away games, to the eight trips to the rest of the Premier League’s top nine, when they were breached 28 times, and the visit to Sevilla, when they let in three. Now the fixture list has thrown up similar tests: Arsenal and Tottenham away, Brighton, who struck twice at Old Trafford last year, and Bayern.
Now the kind of matches that brought clean sheets last season – Burnley, Crystal Palace twice, Galatasaray – beckon. But even if a few shutouts would be welcome, they would not be conclusive. Because a question will remain for the tougher games: can Manchester United defend? And, under Ferguson, they usually could.
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