Man Utd are the only team left in four major competitions. Is it time to prioritise?

First, the good news: Manchester United have started on the crest of a wave. 11 wins from 12 games have taken Erik ten Hag’s men to fourth in the Premier League table, set up a Carabao Cup semi-final with Nottingham Forest and put Reading into the fourth round of the FA Cup.

Said run has included favorable opposition, but in this winning streak, the team has played closer to the fan-favored “ideal” United. Attack speed is higher and defensive strength is higher. In the win, Fulham got a last-minute winner from academy graduate Alejandro Garnacho with a smart winger. They have the longest winning streak since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took charge in January 2019 and are the only English club still involved in four competitions.

Ten Hag looks to be a sure hire and has built a capable football team from an out-of-form and dejected collective. Marcus Rashford is one of the most in-form strikers in the country and critics have gone from writing about Lisandro Martinez’s height to marveling at his defensive timing.

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Almost every interview with a United player has a section where they talk about their manager’s improved discipline and collective team spirit, and Ten Hag himself talks about the high standards and rules that must be followed to sustain progress. United were seen by many observers as outside contenders for the top four before the start of the season. Yet at the start of January, analytics website FiveThirtyEight gives United a 59 per cent chance of qualifying for the Champions League – the third highest probability behind Arsenal and Manchester City.

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That’s good news. Things on the surface and the environment at Manchester United are positive so far.

Not so good now, bubbling under the surface.

It starts with the club’s precarious financial situation, where a number of debtors must be paid before future projects can meet Ten Hag’s goals. The manager wants a new striker in his squad but is owed more than £300m ($365m) in transfer fees to other clubs and Glazer’s ownership appear reluctant to green light another big fee to sign the type of player he wants. . The proposed redevelopment of Old Trafford is believed to be on hold, with United’s owner announcing in November 2022 that “all strategic options will be considered, including new investment in the club, a sale or other transactions involving the company”.

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There is a gap between Ten Hag’s wants and needs, meaning the wave United fans are currently riding is in danger of crashing. Anthony Martial, by the Manager’s own admission, cannot cope with the physical strain of playing three 90-minute games in one week – when his club are due to play 12 games (including the Manchester derby) between now and the end. February. Despite Martial’s (relative) lack of goals and limited minutes this season, he remains almost irreplaceable in the United set-up, and his style of play will be hard to replicate without making a purchase in the transfer market. Wout Weghorst joins on a short-term loan, but the team still lacks the kind of 20 goals in a season that rivals.

An in-form Marcus Rashford scored twice against Charlton in Man United’s Carabao Cup quarter-final (Image: Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)

The midfield of Christian Eriksen and Casemiro is a marked improvement on the ‘McFred’ (Scott McTominay and Fred) partnerships of the past, but both men will face more aggressive pressing systems against Arsenal, Manchester City and Barcelona. the coming weeks.

United are still a work in progress and are slowly adapting to the style of play. Their manager will have to spin a number of plates on and off the pitch and it is questionable whether his side will be ready to run so soon as he walks forward again.

This leads us to a thought-provoking question: is it worth giving up one of their competitive goals so they can channel their energy into something else?

The last time United “armoured” was in the 2016-17 season, when Jose Mourinho prioritized winning the Europa League (and subsequent Champions League qualification) over the pursuit of a top-four finish in the league. United went on a five-game unbeaten run in the Premier League from the end of April to the last game of the season, but reached the Europa League final, eventually defeating Ajax to win the club’s latest piece of silverware.

There were nervous moments, such as John Guidetti’s last-minute chance that would have seen Celta Vigo win a subtle semi-final, but history sees Mourinho’s gamble as more successful than the 2019-20 season, when United finished third. league and suffered defeat in three Cup semi-finals. Tanking can work for Manchester United as long as you win the trophy you choose to prioritize; The sixth place in the Premier League in the 2016-17 season has faded from memory.

Ten Hag himself has given little indication that he is the kind of manager who will give up cup competition to focus on league performance. The 52-year-old replied “we want to win every game” when asked about his Europa League goals during the group stages, and has spent much of his time at the FA and League Cup praising the form of each competition. Winning usually leads to more winning, and this promising form has helped Ten Hag earn goodwill and buy-in from the players and fan base.

By trying to do it all now, he’s building a team better equipped to win more things in the future. A Europa League play-off draw against Barcelona means progress in the continental competition will be more difficult than games against Reading and Nottingham Forest, but if United are to win silverware in future seasons, they must adopt a way of winning. the opposition’s most challenging.

Champions League qualification and other honors are the ultimate goal for this group of players, but cannot be achieved against “winnable” teams alone. It is worth prioritizing your goals to reduce potential risks and maximize returns, but the risk is to limit the amount of rewards you can win.

(Top photo: Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images)


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