Erik ten Hag: I have only been able to pick Manchester United’s strongest team once

Erik ten Hag at Carrington Training Ground

Erik ten Hag has claimed that he has only been able to name his full-strength starting line-up on one occasion in nearly two years as Manchester United manager.

Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final with Championship club Coventry is the Dutchman’s 107th game in charge of United and yet Ten Hag says last season’s Old Trafford Manchester derby is the only occasion on which it has been possible to choose his perfect line-up.

After the successes of his debut campaign in charge, Ten Hag points to a wretched run of injuries and illness in his squad as the reason for failing to develop in his second season.

Leading into the visit to Wembley, there have been a total of 57 different instances of United players missing games due to illness or injury this season, leading to a huge drop-off in results and speculation over Ten Hag’s future under the new leadership of Sir Jim Ratcliffe.

Ten Hag himself, however, insists he is not concerned about external criticism.

“No, I don’t have any concern,” he said. “What concerns me is that in 18 months I have never had my favourite team on the pitch once, because players were injured - that concerns me.

“In fact there was only one time, against City at home last season. That is the only time I had a full squad to pick my full team.

“In all the other games there was an injury aspect that we have had to deal with. That’s normal in football, but not as many as we have had.

“And I know that when we’ve had so many injuries in crucial key positions, you can’t deliver the results you want to bring.

“That’s okay, but that’s my truth – others can have different truths but I can’t put any energy into that.”

Erling Haaland sees his shot blocked by Fred during Manchester City's defeat by Manchester United

Ten Hag’s winning derby team, in January 2023, recorded a 2-1 victory over the eventual treble winners, although his starting XI included Anthony Martial, Christian Eriksen and Tyrell Malacia whose United careers can hardly be said to have been unqualified successes. The selection also featured England left-back Luke Shaw at centre-half.

But, while his supporters point to that injury epidemic in defending the manager’s record, Ten Hag insists he does not care whether he is being judged fairly outside the club.

“I can’t put any energy into whether I am judged fairly or not,” he said. “I know what we are doing here, and I know why I am here - to bring trophies and also to create economic value.

“So we are working on that. In a process you have setbacks and I look at that and can see it realistically.

“I miss that sort of nuance in the comments but I can’t bother about it. I can’t get into the emotions of that. I see it realistically, rationally and I am only focusing on my team, to improve my team, to improve individuals. That is why I am here.”

Ten Hag also cited injuries and absences in explaining the current loss of form of striker Rasmus Hojlund who had scored eight goals in as many games for United prior to sustaining a muscle injury that sidelined him for a month, from mid-February.

The Danish international has failed to score in seven games for club and country since.

Rasmus Hojlund receives treatment for an injury
Rasmus Hojlund has struggled to reimagine the form which saw him score eight goals in as many games before sustaining an injury in mid-February - Martin Rickett/PA Wire/PA

“That is always the issue,” said Ten Hag. “He was in a fantastic run and then broke his rhythm. The question why, always there are many reasons why.

“For instance when he was in the moment when he had the run (scoring), we had many players available, putting out a strong side. And after he returned we had to make compromises.

“Of course, that decreases the performance and there is also an impact on every one - and also on the strikers.”

The prospect of Hojlund scoring a goal in Sunday’s semi, and taking United through to a third domestic cup final in two seasons under Ten Hag, is a poignant one, given the history of Coventry manager Mark Robins.

He, famously, scored in a United FA Cup win at Nottingham Forest that effectively saved the job of United manager Sir Alex Ferguson in 1990.

Ten Hag smiled knowingly when asked if he was aware of Robins’ place in United folklore. “In football it is sometimes like this that one goal off the post can make a huge difference,” he said. “Look at ‘66, eh, with England? Only one time they were world champions.”

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 3 months with unlimited access to our award-winning website, exclusive app, money-saving offers and more.