Manchester United had a positive first season under manager Erik ten Hag. It was meant to be the foundation for the Dutchman to take his team onto bigger and better things, but after four months of this campaign, the mood around Old Trafford is darkening and Ten Hag is under pressure.
A third-place finish in the Premier League, winning the Carabao Cup and reaching an FA Cup final felt like a decent staging post for United to kick on under the former Ajax coach, but so far, it hasn’t happened.
United finished third last season, but were the lowest scorers in the top six with 58 goals in 38 games. They were also second for “big chances missed” with 71, and there was an expectation among fans that the club would bring in an elite striker to help fix the problem.
The club made no secret that signing a No. 9 was their priority ahead of the new season, but in a transfer window during which Harry Kane was available, United instead signed highly-rated — though unproven — youngster Rasmus Højlund.
The 20-year-old Hojlund has netted five times in the Champions League, but is yet to score a goal in the Premier League and although he may develop into a top-level striker in time, he’s not there yet. For their part, United insist that signing Kane was never a realistic option because of the numbers (transfer fee, wages) involved, and also Tottenham‘s reluctance to do a deal with a Premier League rival. It means for a second season in a row, they are struggling for goals.
After 14 league games, United have scored 16 goals, the lowest return of any team in the top 10. It’s only one more than Everton and Burnley, who are in the relegation places.
What’s going on with Marcus Rashford?
Connected to the issue with Højlund is Marcus Rashford‘s form. Rashford scored 30 goals in all competitions last season, but has managed just two this season — one of those was a penalty at Everton that was handed over by Bruno Fernandes for the England forward to take.
If Rashford was scoring regularly it would take the pressure off Højlund, but he’s looked a shadow of the player he was last season and has been regularly substituted by Ten Hag during games when United are desperate for a goal. He was replaced after 61 minutes against Newcastle this past weekend even while his side trailed 1-0.
Rashford wants to play on the left of the front three, but he’s had to compromise this season, either starting at centre-forward when Højlund was injured in August or making do with a place on the right because of Alejandro Garnacho‘s form on the other side.
The danger for Ten Hag is that Rashford has sometimes found it hard to lift himself out of goal-scoring slumps. He managed just five during the 2021-22 season and United can’t afford for him to have another campaign of such little productivity.
Just in defence, the injury problems this season have meant that Ten Hag has picked eight different combinations at centre-back (Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw were paired together in the centre of defence for the first time at Newcastle) and five different players at left-back (Shaw, Sergio Reguilón, Diogo Dalot, Victor Lindelöf and Sofyan Amrabat). Fans are raising legitimate concerns about recruitment given that Ten Hag has spent close to £400 million on new players since taking over as manager in the summer of 2022, but he would likely claim that he’s not had his first-choice XI available once this season.
There is also a question mark whether the long list of injuries is simply down to bad luck, or if there’s a connection between regular muscle injuries and Ten Hag’s preference for intense training sessions over added rest and recuperation during the hectic fixture schedule.
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Are United worse off than last season?
United’s Premier League record after 14 games is pretty similar to their record at the same stage last season. So far in the league in 2023-24, they’ve played 14 games, won eight, lost six, scored 16, conceded 17, and have 24 points. After 14 games of last season, they had won eight, lost four, scored 20, conceded 20, and had 26 points.
Neither is great, but the biggest difference between this season and last is in Europe.
United’s patchy league form was boosted by a smooth Europa League group campaign when they won five of their six games and scored 10 goals. But this season in the Champions League couldn’t have gone much worse, winning just one of five games and conceding 14 goals, including 11 in their three away games.
There has also been a lack of statement wins to lift the mood. By this point last season, United had beaten Liverpool, Arsenal, and Tottenham but this season they’ve played five of the current top 10 (Arsenal, Manchester City, Tottenham, Newcastle and Brighton) and lost all of them.