With a disappointing loss 3-0 to Newcastle United, Manchester United are now out of the Carabao Cup after a match that showed two Premier League giants moving in different directions. Erik ten Hag enjoyed a strong first season with United, finishing third, but under the hood, the Red Devils only had the sixth best goal difference scoring only 15 goals more than they conceded, a stat which was fairly closely mirrored by their expected goal different of just over 17, also sixth best in the league. That finish saw the board provide ten Hag with more power over recruitment and decisions around the club and United has responded by now falling to eighth in the league, third in their Champions League group, and now getting knocked out of the league cup.
Some of the issues are down to United’s injuries, but these injuries were also in part created by the team having a recruitment strategy that trends to more established players. When Christian Eriksen, Casemiro, and Raphael Varane don’t start, Untied usually puts in poor performances and the additions to back them up haven’t helped. Those players are 31, 31 and 30 respectively. Those aren’t the years where you get more durable.
A summer window that saw Mason Mount, Sofyan Amrabat, Jonny Evans, and Sergio Reguilon join the club is one that leaves quite a few questions to be answered. It’s not that these are bad players, but they aren’t ones that turn a top six team into title contenders which is the direction that United want to go. Rasmus Hojlund, the striker acquired from Atalanta, potentially can be the kind of player but he’s only 20 so expectations can’t be set too high in his first Premier League season.
When midfielder Scott McTominay, who was almost sold to West Ham over the summer, has scored more league goals (three) than a forward line that includes Marcus Rashford it says a lot about a team’s attacking strength, but when that happens and a team has also used six different left backs and countless center backs it is honestly impressive that Untied have only fallen to eighth in the league (and their xG difference which is 12th best in the league and goal difference which is tied for 13th suggest they’re truly lucky not to have fallen further).
Rashford was the talisman in the United attack last season scoring 17 league goals from almost 16 xG, but this season he is isolated too often an ineffective on the ball, leaving him with only a single league goal from 3.60 xG. Ten Hag was supposed to bring stability to a club that desperately needed it, but things are rapidly headed the same way as they were under Ralf Rangnick, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Jose Mourinho before him, all managers who had completely lost control of the team and seen whatever plans they had cast aside by the ends of their tenures.
The board has given Ten Hag too much power to easily move on from him without falling even further behind the pace of the league, spending big money on signings like Antony in attack and Lisandro Martinez in defense to help him build the squad they want. One fix for the medium term is giving Ten Hag less power over recruitment as United have continued to sink money into fruitless endeavors that don’t prepare the team for this season and upcoming years. With a sporting director to help build the manager’s vision, it could rebuild United to compete moving forward, but for this season they could already be too far off the pace to salvage it. Of course, you could say the same thing about the time the last three managers (or more) were in charge as well. The more things change at United, the more they stay the same.
Without falling to the Europa League and winning it, which would entail failing to advance in this season’s Champions League, top four is already eight points ahead of the Red Devils which is a hard deficit to bridge already. The draw of the club’s history will always be there but missing out on Champions League will only decrease their recruiting pull. If Ten Hag is the person to turn things around may be the question for new investors, but that only adds to the uncertainty facing the Red Devils.