Football: Manchester United face nervy end to season as problems mount
Manchester United’s season is at risk of imploding in spectacular style after they appeared to have turned the corner in Erik ten Hag’s first campaign as manager.
The Red Devils, already with the League Cup in the bag and through to the FA Cup final, were hot favourites to secure a top-four Premier League place just a week ago.
They are still fourth but after dropping eight points in their past four games are just a single point clear of fast-charging Liverpool in the race for a Champions League place, albeit with a game in hand.
United, who appear exhausted after a punishingly long season, are counting the cost of a lack of firepower and a serious defensive crisis.
Both issues have shown that the club lack the depth of squad to sustain a title challenge despite making significant strides under their Dutch manager.
United have managed just 49 goals in the English top-flight, the second-lowest total in the top nine and a whopping 40 fewer than leaders Manchester City.
Marcus Rashford has enjoyed the best season of his career, scoring 16 Premier League goals and 29 in all competitions, but United are over-reliant on moments of inspiration from the England man.
Next on the list is midfielder Bruno Fernandes, who has just six league goals. Jadon Sancho has five while Antony and the injury-plagued Anthony Martial have each only found the net four times.
Sancho and Brazilian winger Antony, who together cost more than £150 million ($190 million) have been frustratingly inconsistent.
Loan signing Wout Weghorst, brought in to add firepower after the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo in November, has not managed a single league goal.
Ten Hag admitted after Sunday’s 1-0 loss at West Ham that he was frustrated his side could not capitalise on their chances.
A new number nine will be United’s priority in the upcoming transfer window, with Tottenham’s Harry Kane often mentioned, but the calibre of player they can attract may depend on whether they qualify for the Champions League.
Double injury blow
Ten Hag has been forced to juggle in recent weeks after losing his first-choice centre-back pairing of Lisandro Martinez and Raphael Varane in the same match last month against Sevilla.
Argentine World Cup winner Martinez, ruled out for the season with a metatarsal injury, has added steel to United’s defence alongside the silky Varane, who could be back in action soon.
Luke Shaw has been used as a makeshift centre-back alongside Victor Lindelof, with club captain Harry Maguire reduced to a bit-part role.
Behind the defenders, there are growing doubts about whether goalkeeper David de Gea is the right man for the long term after another howler against West Ham.
The Spaniard has now made four errors leading to a goal in all competitions this season, the joint-most of any Premier League player.
Ten Hag came to his goalkeeper’s defence after the match at the London Stadium, pointing out that he has the most clean sheets in the Premier League this season.
“We want him to stay and we want him to extend his contract,” he said.
United’s long campaign — Sunday’s game was their 57th of a season in which they have progressed deep into every cup competition — appears to be catching up with them.
But Ten Hag, who delivered the club’s first trophy for six years at Wembley in February, said his men could not afford to “feel sorry” for themselves.
“Tiredness is in your head,” he said. “If you want, if you have the willingness, you can take it. It’s now up to the players and me and the coaching staff to be together to get the willingness in and the belief we can take it and this team has it.”
He added: “It’s not about Liverpool, it’s about us — look at the table. We have everything in our hands. If we bring our performance, if we bring our standards, we will win games.
“We don’t have to look to others, we have to look to ourselves and find a way to win and find a way to get back to our levels.”