Leaky defence, costly GK errors: Looming Champions League exit might allow Ten Hag to sort Man Utd crisis
Manchester United are reeling at the bottom of their Champions League group, and will face a high-flying Bayern Munich on the last match-day.
Sports is strange. It can be a sheer beauty at one point, then swiftly metamorphose into a cruel experience the another. Nowhere is this truer than in the high-intensity, high-pressure battles at the UEFA Champions League. The latest chapter in Manchester United's European journey is a perfect reflection of contrasting emotions intertwining for the club, as they were restricted to a 3-3 draw at Galatasaray. United led 2-0 – and then 3-1 – before the Turkish giants put a dampener on the side's hopes for a round-of-16 berth. The draw meant United remain winless away from home in the group stage despite having scored 9 goals on the road. 9.
Andre Onana, the £47.2 million summer recruit, was supposed to bring stability between the posts for Manchester United, particularly after years of inconsistent performances from de Gea. However, recent performances have left fans questioning whether he can truly fill the big shoes. The summer replacement has found himself in the eye of the storm after the draw against Galatasaray, where he was unable to prevent Hakim Ziyech from capitalizing on direct free kicks, resulting in two critical goals.
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Life for Onana has taken a tumultuous turn. The stoppage-time penalty save against FC Copenhagen's Jordan Larsson on matchday four had seemed to offer a redemption narrative after a shaky start against Bayern Munich. Yet, the nightmare in Istanbul against Galatasaray has firmly pressed the reset button, placing the goalkeeper's capabilities under intense scrutiny.
But while Onana is rightfully criticised for his mistakes, another question looms: Is he solely to blame for United's defensive fragility, or is there a more profound issue?
Manager Erik ten Hag, in his post-match defense of Onana, reiterated the familiar mantra of a team "winning together and losing together." However, these words ring hollow in broader context. The defensive woes of Manchester United in the Champions League are not merely the result of isolated errors from the goalkeeper. Instead, they point to a systemic issue, a lack of cohesion and discipline that transcends individual performances.
The first goal conceded against Galatasaray provides a microcosmic view of the larger problem. United's attacking prowess, with overloaded players surging forward, left them vulnerable to a swift counter. Bruno Fernandes and Scott McTominay joined the attack, but when the move broke down, Fernandes was forced into a desperate sprint to prevent a counter. In doing so, he fouled Mauro Icardi, conceding a free-kick that led to Ziyech's goal. The sequence highlighted a fundamental issue — the team's inability to transition collectively.
Ten Hag's post-match defense of his goalkeeper was expected, yet it failed to address the root cause of United's defensive frailty. The adage of "winning together and losing together" falls flat when the team consistently fails to play ‘together’ like a cohesive unit.
Clearly, the defensive vulnerabilities are not confined to the Galatasaray game; they have been a recurring theme throughout United's campaigns this season. The team's propensity to commit too many players forward, leaving them exposed to counter-attacks, has been ruthlessly exploited by opponents. In five Champions League games, United has conceded 14 goals, which is a defining reason for the side reeling at the bottom of the group stage despite slotting 9 away goals.
Naturally, a poor defensive cohesion means the attacking flair is nullified, resulting in the side conceding 11 goals on the road in Europe.
Former United midfielder Paul Scholes minced no words when analyzing the Galatasaray game, describing it as "complete madness." He pinpointed the chaotic nature of the defense, with mistakes from the goalkeeper coupled with players like Fernandes giving away unnecessary free kicks. Scholes stressed the need for a more composed approach, especially when leading in European away games.
Bruno Fernandes, the United captain, echoed these sentiments, admitting that the team's current approach in the Champions League falls short. The recurrent pattern of leading and then capitulating — losing a lead at home to Galatasaray, throwing away a two-goal advantage away to Copenhagen in a 4-3 defeat, and twice surrendering a two-goal lead in Istanbul before settling for a 3-3 draw — suggests systemic issues that go beyond individual mistakes.
It doesn't help Ten Hag that dressing room issues have further bogged down their season. After the fiasco involving Mason Greenwood and sexual assault allegations on Antony (the Brazilian has since returned to the squad), Jadon Sancho was forced to sidelines for a disciplinary issue that escalated to a fallout between him and the manager, and it was reported last month that Raphael Varane also wants a move away from Old Trafford. The French defender was on the bench in Istanbul with Ten Hag playing Harry Maguire in the defence instead.
What next for United?
The frailties at the back have long haunted Manchester United, demanding Erik ten Hag to strike a right balance between offensive prowess and defensive solidity. The defensive pairing of Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire has exhibited moments of competency but remains inconsistent at best. Varane's susceptibility to injuries adds another layer of uncertainty to the defensive line's stability, casting doubts on his long-term presence. While Luke Shaw's return does bolster the squad, it falls short of providing a comprehensive solution.
Ten Hag's tactical approach, emphasizing an aggressive surge forward, has inadvertently become counter-productive, leaving defensive vulnerabilities exposed. Opposing managers have astutely exploited these weaknesses, as evidenced by United conceding 16 goals in 13 league matches this season. The previous campaign witnessed disheartening 0-7 and 3-6 defeats to bitter rivals Liverpool and Manchester City, underlying g the urgent need for a defensive reformation.
Their performance in the Champions League has undeniably fallen below par. However, this setback could still potentially serve as a blessing in disguise; with one game remaining in the Champions League against the high-flying Bayern Munich, the club no longer controls its destiny. Copenhagen and Galatasaray sit at 5 points each and these two teams will face each other in the final matchday of the group stage. United's progression chances hinge on a draw between the two, assuming they somehow topple Bayern at Old Trafford.
While the task appears daunting, the Champions League has witnessed more incredible turnarounds. Failure to advance past the group stage and finishing fourth, however, would leave United with only two major competitions to focus on—the Premier League and the FA Cup. And United might advantage from it.
Manchester United has grappled with a significant injury crisis this season. Key players such as Casemiro, Lisandro Martineez, Christian Eriksen, Amad Diallo, and Tyrell Malacia are currently sidelined. Additionally, Luke Shaw recently returned after a prolonged injury hiatus, and Raphael Varane has been plagued by on-and-off injuries since his arrival at Old Trafford last year.
The situation has been dire enough for United to resort to loaning in midfielder Sofiyan Amrabat and defender Sergio Reguilon to cover for the multitude of injuries sustained in the starting phase of the 2023-24 season.
The lack of mid-week action could potentially provide players with a much-needed breather after a challenging first half of the season. While this may not guarantee a trophy, it allows Ten Hag to mold a more settled unit with fresher legs, enhancing his ability to execute tactical strategies effectively. Despite the underwhelming Champions League performances, Manchester United has gained momentum in the Premier League. Currently sixth but on a three-match winning streak, the team sits just six points behind league leaders Arsenal.