The negative headlines came thick and fast for Manchester United in September, even to the extent that the media, somewhat hungry to cause a stir, began to suggest that Erik Ten Hag’s job was in jeopardy. Of course, there were valid reasons for the negativity. Man United had lost three matches in a row, conceding more than three in each (another one of those unwelcome “firsts” since Sir Alex Ferguson retired).
But are things really as bad as they seem? Manchester United’s hopes of joining The Premiership title race took a knock with defeats to Arsenal, Tottenham, and Brighton. And an opening defeat in the Champions League to Bayern Munich was bitter. However, three of those games were away from home. And while away form against top sides is something Ten Hag must address, it has also gone largely unremarked how good United were for large periods of those games. A little luck – a deserved penalty against Spurs, a reversed VAR decision against Bayern – and we would have been looking at different results.
Luke Shaw’s return will be welcomed
Of course, you make your own luck in football, and United, perhaps, have ridden theirs, especially with poor defending. But it’s also worth noting that Man United have had a horrendous issue with injuries. Against Brighton, Ten Hag was missing ten first-team players, an extraordinary number of absentees at such an early point of the season. Luke Shaw and Raphael Varane have been particularly painful absentees.
Yet, you get the sense that the team is clawing its way back. The win against Burnley stopped the rot, and United were notable for their doggedness. Manchester United put in their best performance of the season against Crystal Palace in the EFL Cup, a game that was notable for the stellar performance of Sofyan Amrabat in his first start for the club. The Moroccan was used at both full-back and midfield, but he was all over the pitch, giving United the energy and steel they’ve lacked in recent weeks.
️| Steve Bruce on Sofyan Amrabat:
“I don’t know where he’s playing to be honest, but the kid looks a player.”
— UtdDistrict (@UtdDistrict) September 26, 2023
United will face tougher tests than a Palace side that did not want to get out of second gear in the EFL Cup, but there were enough promising signs to suggest that United could grow into the season. Varane was back in defence, providing the assuredness that Manchester United have been missing. Casemiro, a player who some feel has a Wayne Rooney-like necessity to get games under his belt, was back to his best in a performance only eclipsed by Amrabat’s. Mason Mount, too, chipped in with an assist. And lest we forget, Harry Maguire probably put in his best 90 minutes in a United shirt in months.
All of these elements were not present a few weeks ago. Sure, United have issues to sort out, including the futures of Antony and Jadon Sancho. However, players are returning from injury, with Luke Shaw arguably the most important of a long list. Shaw should be back after the International Break, and Aaron Wan Bissaka should follow soon after. With Amrabat, Hojlund, Mount, and Varane all now back in the fold, Ten Hag will have options.
Hojlund has made a promising start
A word, though, on Rasmus Hojlund. There is a lot of pressure on the young Dane, but it is likely that United fans will give him time. He has looked sharp in the handful of minutes he has been awarded, and you get the sense that he will eventually fit in. Man United fans will be pragmatic, and few expect Holjund to hit 25 or 30 goals in his debut season. What they will expect to see is a young player evolving into his role at a top club, and they will likely get that.
Manchester United are arguably already out of the title race. They will not overhaul Man City, and the best they can hope for is a Top 4 place. The start to the season has not been great, but there have been difficult fixtures – away to Arsenal, Bayern and Tottenham was always going to be tough – and United’s performances have been hampered by injuries and other off-field issues. Nobody is saying that they will suddenly become the best team in the Premier League, but there are silver linings for Erik Ten Hag’s side. They are down, but they are far from out.