Why are Man United having a record bad season and what does it mean for Erik ten Hag?

The 1-0 defeat to Arsenal on Sunday leaves United facing their lowest league finish since 1990

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With only four games left, Manchester United at least looked on course to salvage their forgettable season by securing Europa League football for 2024/25.

Sixth in the Premier League table, one point ahead of Newcastle United in seventh and three clear of eighth-placed Chelsea, United were in control of their own destiny. They even had the insurance policy of an FA Cup final; beat Manchester City and qualify for Europe's second-tier competition, or lose and gain access via a league position anyway.

Fast forward to the present day heading into the penultimate round of fixtures on Wednesday, the scene is far bleaker for Erik ten Hag and his team.

A 1-1 draw at Old Trafford to now-relegated Burnley, followed by a 4-0 thumping at Crystal Palace and Sunday's 1-0 home defeat to Arsenal – combined with resurgent Chelsea's three straight wins – have seen United slide down the standings to eighth, their patchy campaign completely unravelling.

Now the FA Cup final insurance policy has become a must-win game, both for their hopes of playing European football next season, and most likely Ten Hag's job security.

It marks an extraordinary decline in the space of just one season. This time last year, United had won the League Cup, were about to finish third in the Premier League and also had an FA Cup final on the horizon.

What has gone so horribly wrong so quickly? And with a new ownership structure in place, what does this mean for the future of the team and its manager?

Defensive issues

The stats make for grim reading. United have conceded 82 goals in all competitions this season – their worst defensive return since 1970/71 when they also conceded 82. That is a dramatic collapse compared to last season's stability when David de Gea's 17 clean sheets were the most in the Premier League.

Ten Hag will point to the absence of key personnel. Left-back has been a problem area with Luke Shaw and Tyrell Malacia both sidelined, while centre-backs Lisandro Martinez, Raphael Varane, and Victor Lindelof have missed large chunks of the season.

It has left Ten Hag with a patched-up backline, even resorting the United manager to deploying Brazilian midfielder Casemiro in central defence – an experiment that has failed spectacularly. Casemiro, his legs already fading fast during an underwhelming second year at Old Trafford, was horribly exposed in the defeat to Palace and was directly responsible for Arsenal's goal after failing to stride the necessary distance to put Kai Havertz offside.

While a lack of first-choice defenders is a legitimate reason for United's demise, the problems extend beyond that. The midfield is so often overrun, leaving the defence vulnerable and outnumbered. Only Sheffield United, Burnley, Luton Town, and West Ham have faced more shots on target than United's 194 in the league.

There are clear structural issues that need to be addressed, and even in the face of an injury crisis, Ten Hag will shoulder the responsibility of not making United harder to score against.

Goal scoring has also been a problem

United were hardly free-scoring last season – their 53 goals placing them seventh in the Premier League – but it has plummeted further this term. The 20-time English champions have been outscored by 11 teams and are level on 52 goals with Crystal Palace.

Only captain Bruno Fernandes (10) has hit double figures in the league; lead striker Rasmus Hojlund, whose debut season has been beset by injury setbacks, has scored just eight, while winger Alejandro Garnacho has seven goals.

But the most significant note is the drop-off from Marcus Rashford. The England forward hit the 30-goal mark in all competitions last season, including 17 in the Premier League. This season an alarming decline in form has seen Rashford score just seven league goals.

It was Rashford's individual brilliance that dug United out of several holes last season, but with the 26 year old no longer changing games, it has left his team short of quality and consistency in the final third.

Injury problems

Ten Hag has been keen to stress the impact injuries have made on his squad this season and is convinced a fully-fit squad would not have seen United regress so badly. He has not been helped by marquee summer signings Hojlund and Mason Mount missing so much of the campaign.

“I don't know where we should be when we had all the players on board, but definitely it is if there are players all on board, then you will get more points," Ten Hag said after the defeat to Arsenal. "Definitely you will [have] more consistency, especially in the backline because now we concede a lot of chances, a lot of goals and last year we had the most clean sheets in the Premier League.

"Any manager can always do anything better, but now after two years here, I have only had one time where I have had a full group of players.

"You can't progress a team when in particular in certain key areas, it is like swimming with your hands behind your back, then you have to keep your head up and above the water level, this is what we are trying to do. Still we are in a cup final. This is good but if you want to progress a team we need fit players. You have seen with our opponent today that only one player for [Arsenal] was not available. We had so many."

What does this mean for Ten Hag?

The United manager has tried to maintain a positive and resilient front, but with each passing week, his long-term future at Old Trafford becomes increasingly uncertain.

The minority takeover led by Jim Ratcliffe and Ineos in February has transferred football operations to the British billionaire and his team, and there has been little in the past few months that would have convinced the new part-owners that Ten Hag is the manager to lead the club forward.

United have lost 19 games in all competitions this season, the club's most since 1977/78, while the nine defeats at Old Trafford is their joint-worst home record since 1973/74. It has left United on track for their worst Premier League finish and lowest league position since 1989/90.

Equally concerning has been the sharp decline in performance, leading United's all-time record goal scorer Wayne Rooney to claim the players are no longer playing for Ten Hag.

"When you're losing games in the way they're losing games, there's going to be big questions asked," Rooney said while working as a pundit for Sky Sports for United's loss to Arsenal. "I think the players have to look at themselves, when you've got a manager talking about attitudes and players not being right to play for Manchester United, that's a massive insult. If I see my manager saying that, there's no way I would let that ride and ride until the end of the season.

"I think some players are just trying to get to the end of the season, that's my opinion on it. So I feel for him, but that's his job to make sure the players are right."

If Ten Hag has indeed lost the dressing room, then the writing is surely on the wall.

Updated: May 13, 2024, 8:08 AM