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Saturday, April 13, 2024

The statistics are damning of Erik ten Hag and Manchester United

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United have faced more shots than any other side 2024 – Shutterstock/Michael ZemanekIt is almost 20 months since Erik ten Hag cancelled a scheduled day off and joined his Manchester United players on a 13.8km run in baking sunshine around the club’s training ground.United had been thrashed 4-0 at Brentford the previous day in Ten Hag’s first Premier League away game as manager and this was the squad’s punishment: forced to cover the distance they had been embarrassingly outrun by their opponents. Brentford, he said, had been hungrier across the pitch.For Ten Hag, the manner of the capitulation as much as the scale of the defeat was a stark illustration of the the challenge he had taken on at Old Trafford, but they were very early days in the Dutchman’s reign. It was always going to take some time for him to make his mark. This was no overnight fix.But what was the excuse against Brentford at the Gtech Community Stadium on Saturday evening, deep into his second season in charge?Hojlund gymnastics aside – Man Utd were anaemic against Brentford – Getty Images/Justin SetterfieldThe scoreline may not suggest as much but in many ways this was even worse than that 4-0 humiliation. There were only three survivors from that day – Diogo Dalot, Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford. This was Ten Hag’s team. He has had a long time to impose his ideals, his plan.In the second half, he introduced more than £350 million worth of substitutes, all bar Harry Maguire of which he had signed. Injuries? Brentford, without almost their entire first-choice back four, were the only ones who could really complain on that front.Back in August 2022, Brentford had brought their shooting boots and scored four times in 25 first-half minutes from the 13 shots they attempted all told. They had 22 touches in United’s box that day.The only difference at the weekend is Thomas Frank’s side were wasteful in the extreme. Otherwise, they were more dominant than they had been in the 4-0. For a start, they managed almost four times as many touches in United’s box, an unconscionably high number.Indeed, those 84 touches were the most in the Premier League for nearly four years since Manchester City managed 87 in a 5-0 win against Norwich City. Ivan Toney’s 14 touches in the United penalty area were only one fewer than Ten Hag’s entire side managed in the Brentford box.Brentford’s 31 shots were more than they have managed in a single game for five years. They hit the woodwork on four occasions.United never got to grips with Brentford’s shape and were routinely sliced through, passive in and out of possession, second to second balls and lost in attack.It was another of those performances that again left you wondering what Ten Hag does on the training pitch from day to day. A very expensive ensemble of individuals without the first idea of what each other should be doing.Brentford, by contrast, were the definition of cohesion. Every player knew their role and understood the responsibilities of their team-mates. On top of that, they wanted it more.Yes, 20 months after Ten Hag had bemoaned his players’ lack of hunger, he once again had to watch them being outfought and outthought by Brentford. Hungrier, sharper, faster, better. And this a team that has only won two of their last 16 Premier League games.It would have been a minor travesty for Brentford had Kristoffer Ajer not plundered a 99th minute equaliser after Mason Mount had looked like helping United pull off the ultimate smash and grab. But even that encapsulated United’s brittle heart. Steve McClaren, Ten Hag’s assistant, was seen pointing both fingers at his temple and instructing the players to concentrate after Mount’s goal only to then watch the team implode.The performance in the 2-1 defeat at home to Fulham five weeks ago had been dimly received by Ineos and the word was this latest anaemic no-show against Brentford had again gone down badly in Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s camp. Even if Ten Hag is granted a stay of execution by United’s new kingpin and remains in charge come the start of next season, what is abundantly clear is that this sort of football is unsustainable in the longer-term.United look a bag of nerves playing out from the back and Ten Hag seems intent on continuing to ask his team to defend in a low block at the same time as pressing high, the result of which is a perpetual vacuum in midfield that opponents have been exploiting all season. Ten Hag’s side are at their most effective when games descend into chaos, as happened in the dramatic 4-3 FA Cup win over Liverpool, but there is no longevity in that. Control feels as elusive as ever.United have now faced more shots in the Premier League this season (498) than Manchester City and Arsenal combined (482). Only three sides have faced more shots than United this term, and two of them are in the relegation zone. Indeed, United have now faced more shots (197) in 2024 than any other Premier League club.Ten Hag can defend it all he wants, and talk about facing low-grade chances, but this is not how big clubs with ambitions of one day winning the Premier League and Champions League again can realistically hope to operate.

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