“We are in quite a good position,” said Erik ten Hag. In itself, the statement may have been an indication of how standards have slipped at Manchester United. Given United are sixth, it scarcely meets Sir Alex Ferguson’s definition of quite good. And yet there was a logic to Ten Hag’s comments. United have not been expelled from top-four contention. They can look down on Newcastle and Chelsea in the table, though the Tynesiders are entitled to feel their performance level has been considerably higher than United’s; the Londoners may think that, too. Tottenham have been hailed as early-season revelations but are now only five points ahead of United’s underachievers.
Ten Hag argued the context made United’s decidedly mixed start better than it has often appeared. He noted that they have won four of their last five league games. “If you see all the trouble we had, we are in a very good position,” he insisted. “That is a reason to be optimistic.”
But do the grounds for optimism extend beyond that? Ten Hag is entitled to imagine a rosier future with his strongest team. Luke Shaw may be back soon, giving him a high-class left-back. Yet Casemiro and Lisandro Martinez may not feature again in 2023 – and without the Argentinian, it seems as though Raphael Varane is not in his preferred line-up either – and now United are waiting to see if Christian Eriksen and Rasmus Hojlund will join them on the treatment table. The £72m striker has no Premier League goals but, with Anthony Martial his understudy, appears irreplaceable nonetheless.
The counter-argument is that United’s league position flatters them. It is in part a product of an inability to draw, rewarding them in games of all or nothing, but their five defeats may be more telling than the seven wins. Thus far, the fixture list has been friendly: seven of their 12 games have been at home. None of their victories have come against the current top eight. They have played all three promoted teams and most of the stragglers. The seven matches to take them to the half-way point are against in-form Everton, then Newcastle, Chelsea, Bournemouth, Liverpool, West Ham and Aston Villa. United, yet to prove they can beat top teams, looking fallible against the mid-table outfits, risk slipping down the standings.
Indeed, those seven victories have all come by a lone goal; fine margins may have benefited them and their expected points total, of 16.32, is far lower than their actual haul of 21, putting them below Brentford and Everton in that particular chart. United have a sole truly dominant performance to their name this season, against Crystal Palace in the Carabao Cup.
And issues abound across the team. A third of the way into the campaign, United have 13 league goals, three fewer than Wolves, under half Villa’s total. Ridiculously, United have just one from a forward. Perhaps it means individual droughts will soon become floods. “Rasmus Hojlund scored five goals in the Champions League,” Ten Hag noted. “[Marcus] Rashford scored 30 goals last season.”
Now he has one. If Rashford was United’s player of the year last season, and there were several other compelling candidates, now there are too few. Halt the campaign now and the frontrunners for the Sir Matt Busby award might be Harry Maguire and Scott McTominay: men who have revived their United careers, but two who the club were willing to sell at the right price. Arguably no one else has played well enough to merit a mention.
United’s season scarcely shows a strategy that is about to pay off with spectacular improvement. Ten Hag’s bench for Saturday’s win over Luton contained two of his flagship signings year summer, in Sofyan Amrabat and Mason Mount, each now behind McTominay in the queue for places in a midfield without the injured Casemiro, plus his biggest buy, in the eternally disappointing Antony. Rashford played on the right wing, his third best position; none of this seemed part of Ten Hag’s summer blueprint, just as his summer spending spree is yet to reap a dividend.
Ten Hag’s makeshift line-ups stem from injuries – it is quicker to name the United players who have not missed games than those who have – but also from shifts in thinking, from desperate searches for a winning formula. His defence has been decimated and Ten Hag would say that affects the attack, both in terms of the continuity and understanding that bring routines, and with Shaw and Martinez’s ability to pass out from the back.
Defensively, though, there are other difficulties. Unconvincing as Andre Onana has been, his worst errors have been confined to the Champions League. It can feel odd to see that, while sometimes conceding in damning fashion, he has one of the highest save percentages in the Premier League. Go by expected goals and United should have conceded more. Again, the numbers suggest they are poorer than the table indicated. In short, it could have been worse.
And it could get worse. This should have been the easy part. In their last 12 matches in all competitions, United have had a Manchester derby but each of the other 11 would have been winnable for the team of last season. This year, they lost five of 12.
Now, as the fixture list gets ominous, Ten Hag thinks United could get better. He may be right but, apart from the prospect of players returning to fitness, the last three months offer too few other reasons for optimism. “Quite a good position” could get become what is definitively a bad one.