Manchester United’s 7-0 loss against Liverpool came completely out of the blue at the weekend, given the respective forms of both sides ahead of the game.
Prior to Sunday, the Red Devils had won three of the last four in the Premier League, and went into the encounter at Anfield on the back of cup wins over West Ham United, Newcastle United and Barcelona. That good form was based around a new determined, fearless spirit created by Erik ten Hag in recent weeks, but it was sorely lacking against Liverpool.
United wilted under the spotlight in Merseyside, with the reliable Rapahel Varane, Lisandro Martinez and Casemiro putting in subpar displays. Meanwhile, Liverpool repeatedly ripped through the Red Devils’ defence and midfield.
And despite the positive attitude created by Ten Hag since the World Cup, there are evidently still problems he needs to address. That’s not a reactionary comment to one poor result, and the likes of Arsenal and Manchester City also have imperfections, but Sunday was a reminder that there’s still plenty of work for Ten Hag.
We’ve picked out five key issues he needs to solve in the coming months…
It was a surprise to see the defensively vulnerable Diogo Dalot start at right-back against Liverpool, albeit the alternative is Aaron Wan-Bissaka, a full-back not blessed with attacking qualities.
But Dalot was repeatedly targeted by the Liverpool attack, with Darwin Nunez and Cody Gakpo often doubling up on the Portugal international. Dalot was partly culpable for the first goal and had a torrid afternoon against Jurgen Klopp’s side.
The Carabao Cup final also highlighted the deficiencies United have down the right flank, with Dalot struggling to deal with Allan Saint-Maximin in attack, but the team offered less offensive threat after Wan-Bissaka’s half-time introduction. It’s a problem Ten Hag must solve this summer, with a new right-back among his top priorities in the market.
Something which has slowly crept into United’s performances over recent weeks is a penchant for allowing the opposition to start matches quicker. It happened once again on Sunday, as it did in the comeback FA Cup win over West Ham United and the Wembley victory against Newcastle United.
The same happened in the first quarter of the match against Leicester City and at Elland Road last month, with United now failing to score in the opening 20 minutes of the last eight games.
Often a goal has sparked the Red Devils into life, yet that wasn’t the case at Anfield as Liverpool took control.
United’s no.18 put in his worst performance for the club so far during the weekend loss to Liverpool, and the Red Devils missed his ability to break up opposition attacks and link the play.
Indeed, it’s become a common theme that United struggle without Casemiro in the team, as was shown when he was suspended against Arsenal, a match that saw Ten Hag’s side lose for the first time since the World Cup.
United were similarly off the boil when he sat out three consecutive league games against Leeds United (twice) and Leicester, with the midfield lacking its usual dominance in the absence of the 31-year-old. In midweek, Casemiro’s introduction at the interval also changed an underwhelming United, with the former Real Madrid man playing a key role in the team’s comeback victory.
Who plays no.10?
When Wout Weghorst was signed as a short-term back-up option for Anthony Martial, few could have foreseen the pivotal role he’d have at United. But the on-loan Burnley striker has played in all of the last 14 matches and has started operating in the no.10 role of late.
That’s where he played at Anfield, with Weghorst’s most creative attributes coming via his pressing rather than his passing. Yet the Dutchman has often looked more comfortable playing behind Rashford than he has up front, with Weghorst scoring just once since his January arrival.
Bruno Fernandes’ form has also dipped recently and he’s played some of his best stuff from a right wing position, although such a set-up can make it difficult to incorporate Antony into the team. Jadon Sancho is another option in the no.10 position, but he still can’t be relied on to play regularly.
While Ten Hag has plenty of options to choose from, none are particularly impressing at present.
The sight of players bickering and moaning at each other became commonplace last season under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ralf Rangnick, and even Ten Hag has struggled to fully rid the team of that issue.
Fernandes remains the biggest culprit in the United team and he was caught on camera arguing with Antony in January during a Premier League match against Crystal Palace. It was a similar story last weekend for the midfielder, who regularly remonstrated with team-mates, the officials and even the bench at one point.
It’s a habit born of frustration and one that does little to help United when facing challenging situations.