“What can you do?” Erik ten Hag kept asking in the press conference room in Copenhagen. Little tip: maybe stop doing that. By all means have a little whinge about VAR after a narrow defeat in Europe. But perhaps drawing everyone’s attention to your own essential powerlessness is not the smartest move at a time when you have lost nine out of your last 16 games and your leadership is widely held to be in crisis. And people said Ten Hag couldn’t turn Manchester United into Ajax.
In one sense, the 4-3 defeat against Copenhagen was of a piece with United’s season to date: calamity snatched from the jaws of promise, an inability to defend simple crosses, an unswerving determination to step on whatever rakes were strewn in their path. It was the third time this season United had lost from a winning position. And yet if the Copenhagen game was the perfect encapsulation of how things have gone wrong for United, it also offered evidence of how things may yet, with a little time and a little luck, go right.
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It was in New Jersey back in July, on United’s pre-season tour, that Ten Hag gave perhaps his clearest definition yet of how he saw this United team evolving. “We looked into the history of Manchester United and looked also into the qualities of our players. What do we want to be? We want to be the best transition team in the world. We want to surprise. We want to play dynamic, we want to play with speed, we want to play aggressive, out of a very good team spirit, because that is United.”
On the face of it, eschewing the more patient possession-based football of some of their rivals made a good deal of sense. Without the technical quality in midfield to control games, or the time required to build and instil such a style, a quick and direct game of transitions was the best way of using Marcus Rashford, Bruno Fernandes and Jadon Sancho. It built on the strengths of the Ole Gunnar Solskjær era, which in its less abject moments played the most exciting football of the post-Ferguson decade. United’s summer transfer business – Rasmus Højlund as a stampeding presence up front, André Onana as a quick distributor, the industry and energy of Mason Mount – was geared towards this strategy.
So why has everything crumbled this season? Partly it is a product of the noise and turbulence around the club over recent months: the protracted takeover, the botched handling of the Mason Greenwood and Antony cases, Ten Hag’s row with Sancho, Rashford’s drop in form, the Harry Maguire transfer saga. A big club can weather these kinds of storms if it has a settled formula on the pitch. But here, too, the foundations upon which Ten Hag built last season’s modest progress have eroded.
Erik ten Hag’s plan to implement a quick and direct game of transitions is aimed at getting the best out of players such as Marcus Rashford. Photograph: Matthew Ashton/AMA/Getty Images
Take United’s favoured back‑five setup last season: David de Gea, Diogo Dalot, Raphaël Varane, Lisandro Martínez, Luke Shaw. For various reasons, none has enjoyed a sustained run in the same position this season. Sergio Reguilón, signed as injury cover at left-back, is injured. Casemiro has struggled for fitness and sharpness. Christian Eriksen’s increasing lack of mobility has been badly exposed. And so the solid base that earned United more clean sheets than any other Premier League team last season has almost entirely evaporated.
Were Ten Hag able to summon replacements of a similar style, this would be less of a problem. Instead he has been forced to retreat to the Solskjær-era defence of Maguire, Victor Lindelöf and Aaron Wan‑Bissaka, defenders whose first instinct is to drop off rather than step up, and who thus leave United badly exposed in midfield. The hole at left-back – currently being filled by the right-footed Dalot – explains why United keep conceding chances from that area.
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The really interesting, part, however, is how Ten Hag has responded. For all his entreaties that United have to become better at controlling games, all the evidence suggests a coach doubling down on his principles rather than diluting them. While most of United’s metrics have fallen off a cliff this season, there are several important areas in which they have either held firm or even improved.
High turnovers – defined as winning possession within 40 metres of the opposition goal – is one. United were sixth on this measure last season; this season they are top, with almost 11 turnovers per game. Passes per opposition defensive action – a measure of how fluently they are playing out from the back – are up 11%. Progressive passes are up 12%. United led the league for direct attacks last season and are third this time. The average speed of their attacks has increased.
For all the talk of Ten Hag being a more pragmatic coach than his Cruyff-Guardiola lineage might have you believe, all this actually represents something of a daring gamble. Ten Hag’s ideas may have been his own, but he has also learned from his predecessors. He has seen how the obsessive search for control derailed coaches such as Louis van Gaal and José Mourinho.
Rasmus Højlund has impressed in Europe but must bring that form to the Premier League. Photograph: James Gill/Danehouse/Getty
He has seen how Solskjær was ultimately undone by the inability of his teams to form a coordinated press. And most important, he has decided that at a club as big and wild as United, where the noise is deafening and every defeat is a crisis, true stability will always be an illusion. You can’t tame the chaos. So you may as well embrace it.
In the short term, this has turned United into an objectively bad football team, brittle and unable to control games, prone to giving away goals in quick succession. Seven times this season United have conceded three goals or more (they only did it six times in the whole of 2022-23). But in their better moments, you can also see glimpses of how it may ultimately work. Late in the game against Copenhagen, United won a high turnover and created a golden chance for Scott McTominay that would have put them 4-2 up with 10 minutes left.
And so Ten Hag’s big gamble is that once these fine margins start breaking his way, once the defensive injuries clear up, once Højlund hits his stride, once Mount gets up to speed, United will finally have a defined and authentic style of play. A crowd-pleasing, commercially fruitful game of permanent transitions, executed by quick direct players who thrive in broken field.
Of course, it could all blow up long before that. Luton visit Old Trafford on Saturday and pretty much every scoreline from 3-4 to 0-0 to 7-0 is conceivable. United are always perfectly capable of failing again. But perhaps they are, at least, in a position to fail better.