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Rude awakening for Manchester United boss as players show the size of the challenge he faces

Ian Whittell


Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag. Photo: Ian Hodgson

Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag. Photo: Ian Hodgson

Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag. Photo: Ian Hodgson

In the wake of another dismal display from Manchester United, we look at the five priority areas new boss Erik ten Hag must address

Sort out the defence, especially full-backs

The narrative had suggested that Diogo Dalot was ready to replace the hapless Aaron Wan-Bissaka and solve Erik ten Hag’s right-back issue. It took all of 12 seconds for that myth to be exposed, as Dalot gifted the ball to Leandro Trossard to almost give Brighton the lead.

But Dalot was far from the only problem in a defence all too often left exposed by a lack of competent cover in front of it.

Harry Maguire avoided disaster, just, but hardly led by example or looked rock solid. And Lisandro Martinez, while relatively effective alongside him, had a lot of rash and ill-disciplined moments, joining Maguire and Luke Shaw in picking up a yellow card.

Shaw himself was, arguably, the best of Ten Hag’s defenders – although that was a low bar – yet the consensus during pre-season was that new signing Tyrell Malacia had positioned himself as heir apparent.

Malacia’s short cameo as a late sub yesterday was hardly one to suggest that is about to happen.

What to do with Ronaldo?

There seems little option – the 37-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo has to start, at least until United finally land the proven goalscorer they arguably should have moved for last summer.

With Anthony Martial, United’s only recognised forward, injured, Ten Hag opted to start Ronaldo on the bench, citing the Portuguese’s lack of match fitness. Still, it was no surprise when the manager took just seven minutes of the second half to throw him into the fray.

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Briefly, the plan looked like working as United’s attack had a focal point, rather than the figure of Christian Eriksen as a “false nine” at the top of the field.

The fact that United’s goal was scored by Brighton means that no United player has scored now in 288 minutes, a run of over three games dating back to last season.

Where to fit in McTominay and Fred?

Most United supporters would prefer that answer to be “on the bench”. As they were for much of last season, the two holding midfielders were pilloried by supporters for their respective roles in this defeat.

Certainly they did themselves no favours although, as with most aspects of the game, the issues surrounding them are slightly more complex.

Clearly, Ten Hag expected to have long-term transfer target – Dutch midfielder Frenkie de Jong – in his squad by now and that would have relieved the pressure on a pairing, and arguably a system, which is patently unfit for purpose.

“Fred and McTominay are not good enough. They won’t get Manchester United back competing,” said Sky Sports pundit Roy Keane.

Few United fans would disagree.

What system will he settle on?

“Ten Hag ball,” as some optimists were calling a new-look United before kick-off, looked very much like “Ole ball” and “Ralf ball”.

Debutant Eriksen started the game as a centre-forward and the Dane ended it as a holding midfielder after Ten Hag brought on Ronaldo. That meant United shifted from the 4-2-3-1 system so preferred by most of the division’s elite into a 4-1-4-1.

The answer to that question may yet be determined by what, if anything, United are able to do in the remaining days of the window.

How to improve the confidence of key, young players?

Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho, in particular, carried on where they left off last season, as pale shadows of two of English football’s most exciting young prospects.

Rashford snatched at a couple of half chances while Sancho looked low on self-belief.

A packed Old Trafford booing off United players at half-time and on the final whistle cannot have helped massage some low confidence and fragile egos within the home squad. One thing for sure is Ten Hag has got his work cut out. (© Telegraph Media Group Ltd, 2022)

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2022]

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