On Sunday, the Champions League race in the Premier League got a little more interesting as West Ham United defeated Manchester United 1-0 to speed away from the relegation zone behind a solo goal from Said Benrahma. It was a victory that West Ham needed as they were winless in their last three but Liverpool have won six straight games to draw within one point of the Red Devils, who are on the verge of seeing their league season fall apart unless they find consistency.
United’s hold on the top four seemed definite heading into the new year but after injuries and falling out of Europa League, Erik ten Hag’s first season at the helm can end on a sour note if the team’s chemistry can’t be restored. David de Gea doesn’t seem have confidence in the players in front of him while the midfield doesn’t have confidence in the players behind them. On top of that, de Gea had a huge plunder on the game’s lone goal to add insult to injury, failing to comfortably hold an easy ball as it trickled through him and into the goal.
The defensive woes were billed as a Harry Maguire issue but as the season wears on, it is a chemistry issue. While Luke Shaw is an international-level left back, when moved to center back in a back four, things aren’t natural for him. He can stick with speedy strikers but playing next to Victor Lindelof it creates cracks that can be exploited.
On paper, it’s not a match that should mess things up with Wolverhampton, Bournemouth, and Chelsea over the horizon but the run-in is where pressure can change games. Wolves and Bournemouth are looking to avoid relegation and have been unexpectedly giving teams trouble in matches out of desperation while United are looking in their rearview mirror.
Ten Hag is faced with a tough situation because while you’d want him to make adjustments similarly to Jurgen Klopp, unless the team looks to the academy, they don’t have available players to put into the lineup at least until Alejandro Garnacho is back from his injury. Raphael Varane and Lisandro Martinez still being out has forced ten Hag to play players he typically wouldn’t, and it’s starting to hurt the results. It’s a time that coaching is critical because it’s one thing to change the performance by changing the players but it’s another to get different performances out of the same group.
United will need to do the latter or an inaugural season that looked so promising for ten Hag could end in sadness. Making Champions League is important on multiple levels as not only do United have to worry about the achievement that Champions League brings the squad but also the expectation to always be there.
This is a team that needs to offload players during the summer and look to bring in new ones, especially in midfield. But without making the top four, the caliber of player that United can attract during the summer can be hurt. Linked to players like Harry Kane, United would need to look elsewhere as only offering them Europa League isn’t enough of an incentive to move to Old Trafford.
Things can be remedied with a few wins but they’re ones that the Red Devils will need sooner than later. If this keeps dragging on, it may only create a snowball effect that possibly makes it easier for Liverpool to pass them in the table after nobody thought it was likely.