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Tepid Champions League exit an ominous sign for rest of season

It’s not looking good brev...

Manchester United v FC Bayern Munchen: Group A - UEFA Champions League 2023/24 Photo by James Baylis - AMA/Getty Images

Every Champions League group game for Manchester United involved some form of chaos.

The 4-3 at the Allianz Arena. Andre Onana’s errors then heroics then errors again. The basketball-esque back and forths in Copenhagen and Galatasaray with United failing to hold a lead.

The way the campaign went you’d be forgiven for thinking there may have been one more twist in the tale to give us at least 20 minutes of carnage. But perhaps it’s a testament to just where this team is at currently that it ended in a damp squib.

Bayern didn’t have anything to play for and played most of the game at training pace. The gaping holes and spaces to exploit were there if they felt like exploiting them.

Ten Hag’s continuous insistence on setting the team up, in the same way, has United caught between sometimes pressing, sometimes marking man-to-man and sometimes playing a very deep block.

All of it leaves them vulnerable.

There were a number of times when Jamal Musiala and Harry Kane dropped off in the half-spaces for Maguire or Varane to follow, easily creating space behind them. As this would occur, a wide player could pull as wide as they liked and attract a full-back. It was like Bayern were showing what they could do without pulling the trigger.

If you’re playing a team that can easily pull apart your defensive structure in a game that doesn’t matter to them, you’re probably in trouble.

The trouble with trying three different things at once without the ball is United isn’t spectacular at any of them and fails to fully commit to doing the one that is bringing a degree of success (the pressing).

For all the barrage of criticism for Manchester United players, a hollow victory may be that on this occasion as opposed to previous managers they’re sticking to the Dutchman’s instructions. There’s still clearly some fight left in the team and they’re sticking to the plan, but it seems every team knows the plans and knows how to exploit it.

United was the team that needed goals vs Bayern but never looked like they knew how to threaten, apart from when they remembered the success they obtained when pressing.

We are getting towards the halfway point of the season and United is already out of Europe, and has played sixteen league games where the only change in the style of play has what Ten Hag mysteriously labeled as ‘pragmatic’.

The accurate description is more ‘hoof ball’ than pragmatic as even during this period United didn’t look like more of a defensively sound team. Instead, it resembled a team that abandoned the possession-based principles that were established and worked to a good degree last season, at least against lower opposition.

Against Galatasaray at home, the space was there to exploit. They scored two but it could’ve been more if they put their foot on the ball and calmly worked sequences. Instead, the self-destruct button was hit again.

Ahead of Copenhagen away, Ten Hag said he wanted his side to ‘dictate’ the game. For around 42 minutes they did. In my analysis (below) I mentioned a clear change of plan. The emphasis was on shorter passes, keeping the ball, more players in the build-up, allowing the full-backs to be brave, and exploiting the spaces wide.

It was reminiscent of the best football United played last season. Naturally, we haven’t seen this since. For whatever reason even when Ten Hag is stumbling upon things that work (pressing, Copenhagen build-up) he isn’t persisting with them.

The big concern is that we’re witnessing the club at that old familiar stage, where the negativity and downturn are spiraling towards doom for another Manchester United manager, and when that happens it’s tough to wrestle against the narrative of decline and crisis.

It’s less plausible to consider an upturn in form when you realise Ten Hag has persisted with the same tactics throughout the season, despite the clear consequences.

Even when receiving lifeline after lifeline, players scoring screamers and last-minute winners, you’d think the team could get some much-needed confidence and translate good results into good performances.

For that to happen, however, there must be a drastic change which doesn’t look like it will.

The writing is on the wall for Ten Hag but he does have time to erase it. The question will be whether he utilises the correct methods to do so.