First, the good news: Manchester United have started on the crest of a wave. A run of 11 wins out of 12 games has taken Erik ten Hag’s men to fourth in the Premier League table, set up a Carabao Cup semi-final meeting with Nottingham Forest, and Reading to come in the fourth round of the FA Cup.
Said run has included favorable opposition, but in this sequence of victories the team has played closer to the fan-preferred “ideal” United. There is a greater pace to the attack as well as a sense of defensive solidity. Victory over Fulham came from a last-minute winner from academy graduate Alejandro Garnacho through a moment of clever wing play. They are on their longest winning run since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer began his interim tenure in January 2019, and are the only English club still featuring in four competitions.
Ten Hag looks to be an assured hire and has fashioned a capable football team out of what looked to be a misshapen and downtrodden collective. Marcus Rashford is one of the in-form attackers in the country and critics have gone from writing about Lisandro Martinez’s height to marveling at his defensive timing.
Almost every interview with a United player features a section where they talk about the improved discipline and collective team spirit brought by their manager, and Ten Hag himself talks about the high standards and rules that need to be upheld so progress can be maintained. Many observers had United as outside contenders for the top-four positions before the season began. Yet, in early January, analytics website FiveThirtyEight gives United a 59 percent chance of qualifying for the Champions League – the third-highest probability behind Arsenal and Manchester City.
That’s the good news. The on-surface things and environment at Manchester United is positive for the time being.
Now for the not-so-good, bubbling under the surface.
It starts with the club’s precarious financial position, where a series of debtors need to be paid before future projects can match Ten Hag’s ambitions. The manager desires a new striker for his squad, but over £300million ($365m) is owed in transfer installments to other clubs and the Glazer ownership appears reluctant to give the green light to another large payment to acquire the type of player he would like. . A proposed redevelopment of Old Trafford is thought to be on pause, since the United owner’s November 2022 statement to “consider all strategic alternatives, including new investment into the club, a sale, or other transactions involving the company”.
There is a gap between Ten Hag’s wants and his needs, which means the wave United fans are currently riding is at risk of crashing down. By the manager’s own admission, Anthony Martial cannot currently cope with the physical load of playing three 90-minute games in a single week – at a time when his club are scheduled to play 12 games (the Manchester derby included) between now and the end of February. Despite Martial’s (relative) lack of goals and limited minutes this season, he remains close to irreplaceable within the United setup, with a playing style that is hard to replicate without going shopping in the transfer market. Wout Weghorst is joining on a short-term loan but the side still lacks the sort of 20-goal-a-season figurehead that their rivals possess.
A midfield pivot of Christian Eriksen and Casemiro is a considerable upgrade on that of the “McFred” (Scott McTominay and Fred) partnerships of the past, but both men will be subject to more aggressive pressing systems against Arsenal, Manchester City and Barcelona in the coming weeks.
United remains a work in progress, slowly adapting to a style of play. Their manager is having to spin a number of plates on and off the field, and there are questions as to whether his side is ready to run so soon after walking forwards again.
This brings us to a thought-provoking question: is there value in forfeiting one of their competition aims, so they can redirect energy to something else?
The last time United “tanked” came in the 2016-17 season, when Jose Mourinho prioritized victory in the Europa League (and subsequent Champions League qualification) over chasing a top-four place in the league. United went on a five-game winless run in the Premier League from late April to the final match of the season but reached the Europa League final, eventually defeating Ajax and winning the club’s most recent piece of silverware.
There were nervous moments, such as a last-minute chance for John Guidetti that would have seen Celta Vigo win a delicately-poised semi-final, but history views Mourinho’s gamble as more successful than the 2019-20 season, when United finished third in the league and suffered defeat in three cup semi-finals. Tanking can work for Manchester United, as long as you win the trophy you choose to prioritize; the sixth-place Premier League position of 2016-17 has faded from memory.
Ten Hag himself has given little indication that he is the type of manager to give up a cup competition in order to focus on league performance. The 52-year-old gave a rote “we want to win every game” answer when asked about his Europa League aims during the group stages, and has spent much of his time in the FA and League Cup complimenting the format of each competition. Winning tends to lead to more winning, and this promising run of form has enabled Ten Hag to earn goodwill and buy-in from players and the fanbase.
In trying to do everything now, he is building a squad better equipped to win more things in the future. A Europa League play-off tie against Barcelona means progression in the continental tournament is more difficult than games against Reading and Nottingham Forest, but if United are to win any silverware in the seasons to come then they will need to get into the habit of defeating the most challenging of the opposition.
Champions League qualification and other glories will be the ultimate goal for this group of players, but it cannot be achieved against “beatable” sides alone. There is merit in prioritizing your aims to reduce potential risks and maximize yield, but there is a risk of limiting the amount of rewards you can win down the line.
(Top photo: Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images)