Manchester United: Like a Rolling Dice

In football, a single game is often too brief a sample of events to draw definitive conclusions from. Even the most formidable teams have their off days, appearing as mere spectators while relegation candidates play them off the park. On most days, though, one should be able to trace the contours of a team’s structure and style, maybe even some signs of their tenacity and their problem-solving prowess.

But, against Coventry City in the FA Cup semi-final on Sunday, Manchester United unfurled the entire range. Over 120 minutes, they first showed us technical ability and potential, then they showed us complacency, and once Mark Robins’ team started counterpunching, United showed us fear and fragility.

Manchester United, Coventry City, Erik ten Hag, MUFC, English Premier League, FA Cup, football
Artwork by Charbak Dipta

To borrow from a cliché, it was a game of two hours. The first hour of the game saw United in their element, playing with the confidence and purpose expected of a team of their stature against a lower division side. They were dominant on the ball, had enough pace to disorient opposition defenders, and didn’t seem to have too many holes defensively. A 2-0 lead at half-time soon became 3-0.

Yet, as Bournemouth, Chelsea, and Brentford have shown us, United are always there for the taking once the game goes deep. From a single shot in the first half, Coventry City had 17 between the start of the second half and the end of extra time—the same as United in that period.

How do you pick one key moment between United’s defending for the first Coventry goal, or their defending that led to the penalty, or Casemiro’s inability to track his runners, or his meek penalty in the shoot-out, or Antony—an overpaid, overvalued, underperforming midfielder—cupping his ears at the Coventry players and fans after United won the penalty shoot-out?

You could also pass on all of them and zoom in on the moments surrounding Haji Wright’s penalty in the fifth minute of added time. In those six or seven minutes, many could’ve been hoodwinked into believing that this was Manchester City on an onslaught against their rivals, or that United were, in fact, the Championship team in the contest. As Coventry City mounted waves of attack down their right flank—all three goals were scored from the right vertical half of the pitch—United froze, as if they were unable to make sense of what was happening around them. They couldn’t block or intercept Coventry’s moves, and had to instead resort to desperate clearing and tackling. One of those lunges led to a penalty.

The fourth goal, which came in extra time and was overruled by VAR for a marginal offside, could’ve also come in normal time. United were lucky to take the game further.

In the minutes after Rasmus Hojlund secured United’s return to Wembley for the FA Cup final, the players seemed almost sheepish. Their eyes and body language spelt out a thousand words, and, for once, those words didn’t come with a strong whiff of arrogance about the shirt they wear.

In the game of Football Manager, there’s a phenomenon known as being “FM-ed”. It refers to a situation when a player, possibly leading a strong team, gets undone by a substantially weaker team even after annihilating them throughout the game. United’s 3-3 scoreline against Coventry could look like one of those oddities at surface level, but that would be concealing how good Coventry were and how poor United were for long periods of the game.

The hallmark of any decent team is a solid defence. Coaches like Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp may be known for their aggressive attacking strategies, but they all share an obsession with defensive solidity. It’s the foundation upon which the edifice of a potent attack can be built. Erik ten Hag is no different in this regard. His team, however, are far from the boundaries of solidity.

And that’s not it. In this Premier League season, United are sixteenth for expected goals conceded,with penalties and without. Across the 96 clubs in the Big 5 European leagues—England, Germany, Spain, France, and Italy—Manchester United rank 89th for those metrics. No amount of bluster from Ten Hag or the team can mask the bleakness of these numbers.

The only olive branch one can grant United is their rotten luck with injuries this season. As soon as one batch of players finish their rehabilitation, another twitches a muscle. Lisandro Martinez, probably their best all-round centre-back, has started 7 games this season; Luke Shaw has started 12; Varane 16. United have had to bring back Jonny Evans and promote Willy Kambwala from the under-21 team to cover for the threadbare resources.

This lack of a consistent starting lineup can be a concession, but it doesn’t fully absolve them.

With Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s INEOS taking over United’s football department, the question of Ten Hag’s future has hung above the club like a layer of smog. The clarity regarding Ratcliffe and his team’s long-term vision for the current manager is understandably murky. After an encouraging debut season, a subsequent season of growth could have dispelled all doubts. However, with each passing game, the questions surrounding the team and its manager seem to multiply.

On the Sunday of the FA Cup semi-final, Ratcliffe offered a pragmatic perspective to BBC Sport, stating, “It’s a long journey. The fans are impatient and I have some sympathy with that. But it’s a journey, and whether people like it or not, they have to be patient.” While this statement, coming from a team owner—or part-owner, depending on your preference for details—offers a refreshing dose of realism, it does little to guarantee the coaching staff’s tickets for the upcoming summer’s pre-season tour.

The final call matter may rest on whether Ten Hag enjoys the unwavering support of his dressing room. Over the past three decades, coaches have increasingly become peripheral figures in the operations of a football club. Unless you possess the commanding presence of a Guardiola or a Klopp, or perhaps soon an Arteta, you’re likely to be one among a large group of decision-makers, rather than the centrepiece.

Players, on the other hand, wield significant power. Fans shell out hefty ticket prices to watch the likes of Bruno Fernandes and Kevin de Bruyne, not the men in dark blazers on the sidelines. Secondly, they are also more expensive to acquire, maintain, and release. They are the young, dynamic achievers of a team. More marketable, easily likeable, the safest bet to put on jersey announcements. At most teams, especially the larger ones, the coaching staff often finds itself trying to keep pace with the players rather than charting their course.

Have you noticed how “losing a dressing room” has become part of our lexicon over the last many years? Every time there is a sustained trough, we wonder whether a coach has the backing of a dressing room. The murmurs grow into a conversation, which mushrooms into enough noise to come within the earshot of decision-makers. Players have been garlanded with way more influence than they deserve.

Ten Hag finds himself navigating a dressing room where players have recently given interviews to rabid fan channels and engaged with social media posts questioning his decisions. Almost every other week, there are leaks and reports of players expressing dissatisfaction with the manager, a coach, or some aspect of training. If you consider the dressing rooms of Liverpool and City over the past five years, and Arsenal over the past two, have you heard as much chatter emanating from them combined as you hear from United in a single month?

A few years back, Roy Keane likened the United players to leopards who don’t change spots. They do well for one phase, then have a dip, eventually wrap themselves in complete lack of self-awareness and perspective, and hit a trough so low that a manager ends up losing their job. Think Moyes, van Gaal, Mourinho, and Solskjaer.

On Gary Neville’s wonderful podcast, The Overlap, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, manager at United for three years, lamented how he never knew what he would get from his team, barring a couple of players. Is there a bigger indictment of a dressing room than repeated, chronic inconsistency?

And to think Solskjaer’s team were legitimately competent. They finished third one season and second the next, before falling apart in a spectacular implosion in 2021-22, a season that ended with him getting the see-you-later handshake after a 4-1 thrashing at Watford.

Ten Hag, if he ever gets down to writing a book after retirement, will probably voice the same concerns from his time at United. He tried his hardest, but ended up in a quagmire where even the most clued-in fan couldn’t predict how this team will fare against table-toppers Manchester City or 19th-placed Burnley. They could win one and lose the other, and you wouldn’t know which result goes where.

If Coventry City had actually pipped United to the FA Cup final, or bottom-of-the-table Sheffield United held on to their lead at Old Trafford, would you really have been surprised?

Sarthak Dev

Computer engineer, pianist and writer; not necessarily in that order. Can kill for a good football story.