It has been a promising first season in charge for Erik ten Hag, but the end to the campaign will dictate how supporters view the campaign. Manchester United have won the Carabao Cup already. It is good to see the Dutchman pick up silverware so early in his tenure, but the season could become an underwhelming one if results go against the Red Devils.
The FA Cup final is on the horizon and supporters will be hoping that they can prevent Manchester City from winning a famous treble that day. However, the short term focus needs to be on the Premier League. United are fourth and just one point above Liverpool, albeit they do have a game in hand over Jurgen Klopp’s side.
Their position is still a strong one and Liverpool wouldn’t want to swap with their rivals, but there is still work to do. Successive 1-0 defeats to Brighton and West Ham United away from home have added an extra layer of jeopardy to their final four league matches.
The results themselves are disappointing and have piled the pressure on United. That said, it is actually the performances that are more worrying. The players look tired and are running on fumes. That isn’t surprising as United have competed on four fronts for the majority of the season with very little rotation.
Ten Hag doesn’t seem to trust the squad as much as other managers near the top of the league. This means the likes of Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford and Casemiro have a lot of minutes in the legs. As we are in a unique year that featured a World Cup and minimal spacing between matches, the huge workload will have an even bigger strain than normal.
Fernandes himself has played 66 matches across all competitions for both club and country. That is a remarkable amount of matches, therefore it isn’t surprising that his performances aren’t at their highest levels. This is a common issue for a lot of the players within the squad and the last two performances have been symptomatic of that.
The two defeats in the last week have been close matches. There were chances at both ends, but Brighton (2.1 – 1.32) and West Ham United (1.77 – 1.19) both created more expected goals (xG) than United. That is a concern for Ten Hag. If their matches continue to be even matches with chances at both ends, it is very difficult to control the outcome. The fatigue in the squad could lead to this trend continuing.
Despite the recent defeats and issues over fatigue, Manchester United are still heavy favourites to finish in the top four. The 538 prediction model gives them a 79% chance of finishing the job, but it now feels like they are at more risk of dropping out than Newcastle United.
Liverpool can only reach 71 points if they take maximum points from their last three matches. That isn’t a guarantee with the Reds not being entirely convincing in their recent wins, but Manchester United need to be expect their rivals to achieve that. If they do, that means United need to get to 72 points to secure top four. Three wins from their last four matches would do this.
They have three of their last four matches at Old Trafford, against Wolves, Chelsea and Fulham. Their only remaining away match is against AFC Bournemouth. Ten Hag couldn’t have hand selected a better last four matches with all those teams having nothing substantial to play for.
At home, they are much better and have dropped points only four times in the Premier League. That will give them confidence for the three home matches. Meanwhile, Bournemouth’s defeat at home to Chelsea on Saturday suggests they will not be as difficult to play against now safety is confirmed.
In short, Manchester United should still be very confident of finishing in the top four. However, the last week has made it a lot more nervy than it needed to be.