Erik ten Hag must acknowledge Man Utd mistakes - or the Bayern Munich clash could be a demolition
Erik ten Hag’s struggling Manchester United side face a huge task against Bayern Munich - and unless the coach can face up to his mistakes, they are in trouble.
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“We have to stick to the plan”, said Erik ten Hag after his ailing Manchester United side were efficiently dismantled by Brighton & Hove Albion on Saturday. He used the exact same words in the wake of the 7-0 thrashing they suffered against Liverpool last season. The problem is that the plan seems to lie in tatters – and now Bayern Munich await in the Champions League on Wednesday. A betting man would not place much money on United.
From an outsider’s perspective, it isn’t entirely clear what the plan even is right now. Ten Hag switched from a 4-3-3 formation to a 4-4-2 diamond, admittedly a change partly enforced by the absence of Mason Mount and Sofyan Amrabat but not a move with marked a consistent strategy. And regardless of the formation, United were sloppy in possession and shoddy out of it. Their defending was atrocious and players were routinely miles out of position when Brighton came forward. A remotely similar performance could lead to a very painful night for the Mancunian side.
The pre-match statistics make for grim reading. United have never beaten Bayern in Munich, and the home side are currently on a record 34-match unbeaten run in the group stages of Europe’s biggest club competition. They are unbeaten this season and have picked up 10 points from the opening four Bundesliga games, four more than United have managed in five. Tuchel seems to have his team on song after a shaky start to his tenure, while Ten Hag is struggling to get a tune out of United.
So how can Ten Hag turn the ship around after such a poor start to the new season? For starters, his side need a Plan B, because the Dutchman’s preferred set-up with a three-man midfield simply doesn’t suit the players at his disposal.
New signing Amrabat is the only player in the squad with the attributes to play as the second man in the midfield, a role which requires equal parts hard defensive graft, a willingness to run oneself into the ground, and smart distribution of the ball going forward. That United started the season with Mount, a nifty little attacking midfielder who operates best through the channels and in the half-spaces around the edge of the area, suggests a serious divorce between recruitment strategy and the coach’s tactical requirements.
United did start fairly brightly against Brighton, so perhaps the 4-4-2 diamond has a future – but the formation swiftly became irrelevant as United’s discipline and fundamental tactical grasp of the game around them disintegrated once the Seagulls had opened the scoring. They played like a group of complete strangers, not professional footballers entering the second year of a coach’s reign. Defenders ended up rushing miles out of place to plug gaps that had already disappeared. The forwards ignored each others’ runs and made the wrong choices. The midfielders seemed to have very little idea of where their next pass needed to go. Fixing team cohesion has to be the first item on the agenda at Carrington, long before the fine details of the scheme become a concern.
That doesn’t seem to be the way the players feel. Christian Eriksen, in the aftermath of Saturday’s defeat, said that United’s problem was “the small things we are missing and a bit of luck to get over the line and get something out of the effort we put in”, and if that’s the message coming from the head coach, that should concern the club’s fans, because the big picture is far more alarming that the smaller details right now, and luck had precious little to do with the scoreline.
And Ten Hag needs to get a grip on his man management, too. The very public mishandlings of players like Harry Maguire and Jadon Sancho have served neither club nor player, with dirty laundry dragged into the sunshine for all to see. Perhaps neither player was going to turn things around, but openly criticising players seldom achieves anything other than poisoning the dressing-room atmosphere and entrenching whatever frustrations existed further. These are pages from the José Mourinho playbook, which has never made anything good happen.
Then there is the question of form for many of the players in the squad. Too many players, especially in defence and up front, are horribly off the boil, and Ten Hag needs to find a way to motivate them and nurse them back to footballing health. The stick hasn’t worked yet, so perhaps a gentler, more carrot-focused approach would help.
Of course, there are mitigating circumstances for Ten Hag. United’s treatment room is busier than the training field these days, with Aaron Wan-Bissaka the latest player handing in a sick note – Mount and Amrabat stand alongside Luke Shaw, Tyrell Malacia, Raphaël Varane, Amad Diallo, Kobbie Mainoo and Tom Heaton as either long-term injuries or players short of full match fitness after various knocks and strains. The Dutchman is undeniably working under restricted circumstances, and the club culture is rotten from boardroom down, for which Ten Hag does not bear responsibility. But that doesn’t excuse the tactical mess that United have become, nor does it paint over the coach’s handling of individual players. Very few of his charges have improved substantially since he took over at Old Trafford, with Wan-Bissaka and Diego Dalot perhaps the only two to have grown significantly under his tutelage.
Now they face a Bayern side with far fewer problems. They do have some injuries, with Joshua Kimmich potentially missing out, Jamal Musiala being eased back into action after missing the past few games, and Manuel Neuer, Kingsley Coman and Raphaël Guerreiro all longer-term absentees, and there is a sense that they haven’t fully hit their stride after scraping their eleventh consecutive German championship last year thanks more to Borussia Dortmund’s collapse than their own qualities - but Bayern are ultimately playing pretty well and have plenty of classy players in good form.
If United put in another performance resembling what we’ve watched so far this season, they will likely get torn to pieces. But they still have plenty of good players of their own – Ten Hag just needs to reset the team spirit and get them working on the basic tactical plan until the scrappiness and incoherency are dealt with. Unfortunately, he has had just four days in which to do that, surely not enough time to do more than paper over some of the cracks. It could be a long, hard evening in Bavaria for United, but there is still plenty of time to set things right – so long as they acknowledge that they are getting so much wrong in the first place, and that starts with the manager, who is currently not making the right moves.