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Why Do They Keep Losing?

Nine games, one point, eight scored, 30 conceded. That is not the record of a team battling relegation. It’s Manchester United’s away record under Erik ten Hag against teams in the top nine of the Premier League.

It is no doubt that United have improved under the Dutchman. The trophy drought was over last year with the Carabao Cup victory and a return to the UEFA Champions League was secured too.

However, much of it has been down to their strong home run and winning the odd game away when they’re heavy favourites.

Roy Keane lambasted United after the defeat to Spurs, going as far as to call them the “New Spurs”. The defeat completed United’s away record loss column, with Spurs being the only team they didn’t lose against away from home last season in the top nine.

So, why does a team, clearly on the up, keep losing away games against marquee opposition? Here’s an attempt at making sense of this phenomenon-

Brittle mentality

Whenever United lose an away game heavily, the first thing that comes to mind is how weak the players look when faced with any sign of adversity.

Of course, the discussion will get more nuanced later in this piece, but intangibles matter.

The harsh reality remains that United have never once looked like winning an away game against top teams if they concede first.

As soon as they concede first, the wind is knocked out of their sails. The frustration, petulance, and hopelessness are palpable on the pitch and United fans could be forgiven for closing their eyes and waking up to a traumatic scoreline after just the first goal.

These games have settled into a familiar pattern. Create good chances -> Fail to score first -> Opposition scores first -> Frustration leads to rushed passes, bookings -> Opposition piles on the misery.

This pattern can only be broken at two stages. Either United score from the chances they create, which Ten Hag has repeatedly stressed or they keep their heads on their shoulders when faced with adversity.

Of these two stages, the second is completely up to them, since nobody misses chances intentionally. The fact that they haven’t been able to so far shows the brittle mentality that runs deep in the squad.

Tactical blunders

So far in his tenure, Ten Hag has managed to escape major criticism for his tactical choices because it has always looked like a long-term plan is in place.

Something turned after the defeat to Tottenham. Players again missed chances, yes, but some of his tactical choices left the fans baffled.

Rashford as a striker is rendered blunt and it is known by everyone, including the player himself when he talked about his favourite position on the pitch.

Yet, the Dutchman continues to put him there, despite Jadon Sancho’s refashioning into a False 9. It limits Sancho, blunts Rashford, and damages the overall attacking balance due to Rashford’s inability to play with his back to the goal.

Even last season, these errors came to the fore in a few games. Be it playing Bruno Fernandes as a deep midfielder causing the midfield to get overrun, or playing a high line against Erling Haaland and Co at Etihad last year, Ten Hag’s tactics are coming under the microscope now.

Favourites in team selection?

Ten Hag clearly has a well-defined first-choice XI. That is good for players who play with each other continuously and get familiarised with patterns of play.

However, he has been increasingly reluctant to deviate from it even when it is not working, which points to inflexibility instead of clarity.

Antony, last year’s marquee arrival, has blown hot and cold throughout his career but seems to have a confirmed place in the first XI if he’s fit. His extreme left-footedness has been exposed while his dribbling and pace have gone missing this season.

Still, Ten Hag has preferred to take his creator-in-chief Bruno Fernandes out wide rather than play Facundo Pellistri. The Uruguayan offers something different to one-dimensional Antony and yet he was limited to 280 minutes of football last season.

It’s clear that there is a longer rope for some than the others and it is making United easy to plan against. Having a settled XI is good, but not changing it even when it’s not working is where failure and complacency in the player creeps in.

The most concerning this about all these reasons above is that except for “just score from your chances”, everything is fixable immediately.

The fact that this has gone on for more than a year, without any sign of improvement, is worthy of scrutiny. If it continues for the whole of this season, then questions might even be asked if Ten Hag’s United have hit a ceiling.

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