Anfield hasn’t been a happy hunting ground for Man Utd in recent years, and another heavy loss there could prove the final straw for fans who are – for now – still showing Erik ten Hag patience.
There are quite a few reasons Manchester United fans could cite to justify turning on Erik ten Hag. After a defeat to Bayern Munich on Wednesday that sent United out of Europe, without even the consolation of the Europa League, the list of damning statistics is striking.
- Takes deep breath in
Only three teams in Europe’s top five leagues have lost more games in all competitions this season than United (12), and only one side in the Premier League – relegation-threatened Burnley. Those 12 defeats mean United have already, inside 24 games in 2023-24, matched their total losses from 62 games in 2022-23 .
They have finished bottom of their Champions League group for just the second time, previously doing so in 2005-06. Having also lost to Galatasaray this year, 2023-24 is just the second time that United have lost two home games in the Champions League group stage, previously doing so back in 1996-97, when they lost to Fenerbahçe and Juventus. United conceded 15 goals in their six group stage games – the most ever by a Premier League side in a single group stage in the Champions League.
Their total of 0.25 expected goals against Bayern was the fourth-lowest by any team in a Champions League game so far this season, and the lowest by a distance among home teams (ahead of Young Boys’ 0.47 vs Manchester City). Their five total shots was the second-lowest by any team playing at home (ahead of RB Leipzig’s three vs Manchester City), and their one shot from inside the penalty area was the fourth-fewest by any team this season, and the joint-fewest by a team at home (also alongside Leipzig vs City).
It’s no secret that United have fallen a long way since the Alex Ferguson years, but it was still stark just how little trouble the hosts caused Bayern, even if Thomas Tuchel’s team are patently the far better team and came into the game as huge favourites. United were the ones who needed something from the game, but in truth, never looked like scoring.
And yet, the Old Trafford fanbase still haven’t really turned on their under-fire manager. Despite United crashing out of Europe in miserable fashion and showing little sign that their league performances will improve enough for them to qualify for next season’s Champions League or win the FA Cup – the only competition they retain a chance of winning – the fans are not blaming Ten Hag.
Those in charge of the club and underperforming individuals are attracting far more of the fans’ wrath than the Dutchman. That in itself will have helped Ten Hag’s cause significantly; it may be why Old Trafford hasn’t yet become as toxic a place as it had under previous managers, something that would only harm the players’ hopes of turning a corner.
The most bizarre aspect about Ten Hag’s situation is that he won the Premier League Manager of the Month award for November after three wins from three without conceding a single goal. Before Saturday’s 3-0 defeat to Bournemouth, United had won six of their last eight Premier League games – only failing to beat City at home and Newcastle away – to haul themselves back into contention for Champions League qualification. Before the weekend, they were level on points with fifth-placed Tottenham and, remarkably, only three points off City.
But nobody would have called their recent run of form convincing, not least because interspersed in that run were the results that ripped their Champions League hopes apart and an insipid 3-0 defeat in the EFL Cup at home to Newcastle’s second string. There was also the fact that the run of positive results included single-goal victories over Premier League strugglers Sheffield United and Luton, the latest comeback victory in their Premier League history against Brentford, and a stuttering performance before a last-gasp Bruno Fernandes winner over Fulham.
These circumstances are why United’s season – and Ten Hag’s position – feels so precarious. Even when they were on an award-winning run of form, they were still only a few games away from the brink of a full-blown crisis.
The general consensus is that Ten Hag is safe for the time being, in part because of the ownership situation and the fact that they currently have an interim CEO in Patrick Stewart, who will not want to make a huge decision like changing manager only a month into his temporary job.
But this weekend, Ten Hag faces arguably the worst possible opponent. United travel to Anfield to face a Liverpool side who are top of the league and gunning for the title.
Liverpool have a perfect record at home in the Premier League this season, with seven wins from seven, 21 goals scored and only five conceded. United have a decent away record, with four wins from seven, but they have lost all three of their games away to teams that finished in last season’s top nine. Going back further, they have failed to win any of their last 13 Premier League away games against teams starting the day in the top eight of the table, losing 10 of those 13 games.
United also have a poor recent record against their fierce rivals. They have lost four of their last five meetings, conceding a total of 21 goals and scoring only four, with their defeats coming by scorelines of 7-0, 5-0, 4-0 and 4-2. They did, however, win last season’s Old Trafford meeting 2-1, though looking at the United lineup that day (below), that game feels like it was in another lifetime. That was their only win in 10 against Jürgen Klopp’s side.
The 7-0 defeat at Anfield last season was an astonishing result. United came into the game on the back of a run of eight wins and only one defeat in 11 league games and, third in the table, still holding onto slim hopes of a charge back into the title race. Liverpool, 10 points back, were desperate just to be involved in the conversation for Champions League qualification.
But then Liverpool ran riot in what was United’s joint-heaviest ever competitive defeat, and their biggest since December 1931.
United return to the scene of the crime with a decimated squad that is also decidedly lacking in confidence. There is a chance that Ten Hag will have Mason Mount, Christian Eriksen and Victor Lindelöf back from injury, but Eriksen and Mount will be severely lacking in match fitness, and even if they do play, their returns won’t mean United don’t feel the strain of other absences. Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw limped off in the defeat to Bayern and don’t look likely to be involved at the weekend, while captain Bruno Fernandes misses out through suspension.
Maguire has proved his worth in recent weeks, and last month won the Premier League Player of the Month award to go with Ten Hag’s gong. Shaw, meanwhile, has always been the most dependable of United’s left-backs, at least in terms of consistency of performance if not availability.
Fernandes will be an even bigger loss. He is one of only seven outfielders across the entire Premier League to have played every single minute this season, and is the only one of those seven outfielders who isn’t a centre-back.
He has created more chances (47) than any other player in the whole division and has been involved in more open-play shot-ending sequences than anyone else (105). He has been directly involved in 33% of United’s Premier League League goals (three goals and three assists) this season; other than Scott McTominay (five goals), no other United teammate has played a part in more than three goals. This weekend’s game would be a tricky enough task as it is, but it has been made even more difficult with Fernandes picking up his fifth booking of the season against Bournemouth last week.
It was in the defeat at Anfield that Fernandes came in for withering criticism for his attitude as his team slumped to an embarrassing loss. He will get no chance to make amends this weekend.
In many ways, this weekend’s meeting is a free hit for United and Ten Hag. There will be few expectations of a positive result, and the excuses are already written and ready to roll out if they lose again. And if they can nick a result, it could be a huge confidence boost.
However, another heavy defeat could be the final straw for some of the fans. And United will be up against it.
They haven’t scored in their last four trips to Anfield – their longest run of games without an away league goal against any opponent since the 1970s. They will also be facing Mohamed Salah, fresh off scoring his 200th Liverpool goal and on a run of 16 consecutive home games in which he has either scored or assisted a goal. A goal or assist on Sunday would make that run the second-longest in Premier League history, behind Alan Shearer for Blackburn from March 1995 to February 1996. Given Salah’s 12 goals against United is more than he has scored against any other opponent and the most by any Liverpool player in history against them, Ten Hag’s side will do well to stop him.
Liverpool have been very, very good in attack this season, and if they are in the mood to pile the misery on United, we could be in for another high-scoring affair. It could end up being a case of damage limitation for Ten Hag to keep the fans on side.
Then again, there have been a couple of genuinely promising United performances this season, and who knows? Maybe we’ll see another of those when we least expect it on Sunday.
If United are one thing, they are unpredictable, after all.