United sleepwalking into poor form at the wrong time

Manchester United went a third consecutive league game without scoring as they slumped to a 2-0 defeat at Newcastle United.

Erik Ten Hag’s side have now picked up just one point since February 19th’s win over strugglers Leicester City. Even more concerning for the Dutchman is his team’s torrid record away from home. United have now lost six away games in 2022/23- all to top 9 teams. The Red Devils’ away points per game across the campaign is an unimpressive 1.43 – Arsenal’s by comparison is 2.43.

In a season that was bound to throw up inconsistencies, United put in a concerning performance against the Magpies, who were by far the better team on the day. Outclassed in every department, the blame for Sunday’s defeat lies at all involved: players, coaches and manager.

Ten Hag speaking to MUTV before Sunday’s defeat to Newcastle United. (photo by UTD District)

What went wrong for United?

Before a ball was kicked, the narrative was one of mounting challenge for United. They had failed to recapture their sensational post-World Cup form after a damning 7-0 defeat to arch-rivals Liverpool. Besides breezing through their Europa League tie with Real Betis, United have lost their attacking mojo that was so evident during January and February.

On a sunny but cool afternoon in the North-East, Newcastle emerged deserved winners. The home side, geed on by a buoyant Geordie crowd keen to avenge the League Cup final defeat from last month, were in imperious form. The Toon outplayed United at every juncture. xG-wise, Newcastle registered 3 more expected goals than United. In truth, 2-0 flattered the Red Devils. But for some magnificent saves from David de Gea, the scoreline could and should have been more negative.

Erik Ten Hag labelled the defeat a ‘setback’ and challenged his players to respond on Wednesday night vs. Brentford. (Photo by Football365)

Lamenting his side’s poor showing, Ten Hag bemoaned his side’s lack of response to the home crowd.

“I was surprised the team couldn’t match the determination & passion of the opponent. You know when you travel to St James’ Park what will be going on, especially after we won the cup. If you want to win big games you have to be mature, I didn’t see that.”

The realities Ten Hag must face

No player in red performed particularly well at all, but this game saw a markedly poor performance from the manager too. This season, smart substitutions and shrewd tactical tweaks have resulted positively for United. Turnarounds against Fulham, Barcelona, Manchester City and Aston Villa all standout as watershed moments which signalled Ten Hag’s managerial intelligence.

The Dutchman would be the first to admit that his decision making before and during the game was flawed.

Wout Weghorst has started every game since arriving in January on loan – a streak of 19 games. He has four goal involvements in that time. (Photo by MEN)

His side lacked the authority and ability of Casemiro – the Brazilian is serving a lengthy ban. The manager lacked his central figure and instead opted to play Bruno Fernandes in a much deeper role than usual. In this forced position, his influence was minimal, and had to be adjusted at half time.

Another chance to learn

The reality is Ten Hag has not been given enough time or enough opportunities to create a Manchester United squad in his image. Of Sunday’s starting eleven, only Shaw, Varane, Martinez, Fernandes and Rashford are shoo-ins to feature heavily in the coming seasons. There is real investment needed still in the playing squad. A top-class forward is top of the list. A ball-carrying wide player, cover for a thin-looking defensive midfield, a full-back and potentially another goalkeeper are all touted as emerging requirements in United’s squad.

Another questionable choice came at the 80-minute mark. Ten Hag sacrificed both centre-backs at once, bringing on a lone Victor Lindelof and throwing forward Pellistri. On paper, it meant one less defender and one more attacker. In reality, Luke Shaw was forced to fill in as a makeshift centre-back, United lost all shape and conceded a killer second.

Ten Hag has passed the vast majority of tests he has faced in this, his debut season. Sunday’s humbling defeat was a damning failure, and one Ten Hag will be keen to move on from quickly. His team have the chance to do that on Wednesday night when they welcome Brentford to Old Trafford.

Author: Sam Talbot

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