Over the last few weeks, in what has been a highly pressurised period in games, the Manchester United squad have noted a shift in training. Erik ten Hag has been doing a conspicuous amount of fitness work. Some players feel this has been more of a focus than tactical sessions.
Critics and opposition analysts might well say that’s obvious, given that even FC Copenhagen dominated the ball for long periods of that Champions League-saving win at Old Trafford. One of the themes of the season has been how United just haven’t played anything close to Ten Hag’s supposed tactical ideal. Many of the recent games have actually been reminiscent of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s time, especially in how individual inspiration has brought wins out of unconvincing collective displays.
That’s also why their fitness work may be important. Durability has been one of the few current qualities keeping United going, and may well prevent Ten Hag from emulating Solskjaer in another way. It may stop them from going out in the group stage again, just as they did in 2020-21.
Early elmination isn’t just something that should be put at Solskjaer’s feet, though, nor is it the sole motivation for Wednesday’s game in the Danish capital. United are in some way playing for their modern Champions League legacy.
The club’s dismal recent record in the world’s elite competition is as telling a measure as any other of their recent malaise. They may have never dropped out of thhe Deloitte Football Money League top five in terms of revenue, but they barely trouble the Champions League last eight. United haven’t even been to the last four since 2011, which was also the last time they reached the final.
In the time since, United have qualified for the competition eight times and gone out at the group stage three times. That is more than they’ve reached the quarter-finals, which has been just twice.
Among the clubs to finish above them in their groups since then are Benfica, Basel, PSV Eindhoven, Wolfsburg, Leipzig and Paris Saint-Germain.
One of a few ambitions for Copenhagen here is to become another name on a fairly moderate list.
They’re well aware they can claim a potentially decisive result, as performance in the 1-0 defeat at Old Trafford showed. Copenhagen got significant confidence from it, despite is ending. They know they should have claimed at least a draw, only for Andre Onana to stop Jordan Larsson’s penalty in what could yet prove to be a hinge moment in the campaign.
For the moment, the feeling in Copenhagen is one of huge excitement. It can be sensed in all of their pre-match talk, and how they consider themselves favourites.
Ten Hag was diplomatic there. “They are entitled to feel like they are favourites,” the United coach said, before playing all that down. “We’ll go into the game with confidence and aiming to win as well.”
That latter point may have raised more eyebrows than Copenhagen’s proclamation since United just do not look like a confident side right now. They instead seem to be playing with the knowledge that one thing going wrong can lead to everything going wrong.
A second victory in a row would admittedly help a bit more, especially one so important for their Champions League future.
That sums up where United are right now. It’s like they’re constantly just trying to just get through it, to get to the next step in order to give themselves, the many injured players and their manager some breathing space. Bigger ideas about tactical philosophies can wait.
Ten Hag referenced this when he discussed how to improve performance. “By getting more to our best 11 and getting routines in the team. So far, we’ve had to change a lot. The midfield balance is also not there. I'm sure once we get there, we’ll play better.”
This is one match when they can’t afford to wait. Otherwise, it will be more of the same in the Champions League, while making that record worse. Ten Hag badly needs to avoid defeat.
Physical form can be decisive there, since United do just have higher quality than Copenhagen. That might make it another of those where superior execution late on proves decisive.
It shouldn’t really be coming down to games like this, though, when the financial gap between the two clubs is so vast. You just wouldn’t guess it from United’s Champions League record.