Subscribe to Miguel Delaney’s Reading the Game newsletter for no cost and receive it directly to your email.
Subscribe to Miguel Delaney’s weekly newsletter for free.
Evaluate Erik ten Hag’s tenure as the manager of Manchester United, as his new employers are currently doing. The most notable achievement was winning the Carabao Cup at Wembley, but the majority of his significant victories and evidence of his suitability were at Old Trafford.
Ten Hag has achieved notable victories against Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham, Manchester City, Barcelona, Aston Villa, and Chelsea. However, these victories were only at home. Over 18 months after Ten Hag’s first appearance as a coach, Scott McTominay scored a crucial goal to secure a win for Manchester United at Villa Park. This result was significant not only because of the win, but also because had United lost, they would have been 11 points behind Villa and essentially out of the race for a spot in the Champions League.
However, it could also be argued that this was Manchester United’s first victory on the road against a formidable opponent since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tenure ended in October 2021 with their triumph over Tottenham. The mention of the manager indicates that this was during a different period. The first two goals were scored by Cristiano Ronaldo and Edinson Cavani, who now have a combined age of 75. While Ten Hag cannot be solely held accountable for United’s disappointing away performances in the following seven months, their record in challenging away matches since then may be seen as a criticism. This may prompt Sir Jim Ratcliffe, Sir Dave Brailsford, and incoming CEO Omar Berrada to investigate.
Ten Hag expressed confidence in his team’s ability to defeat opponents both at home and away. This came after a thrilling victory ended a lengthy period of anticipation. However, this season, Manchester United had faced difficulties in defeating top-performing teams at home, with the exception of West Ham and Aston Villa. In fact, they had never managed to beat these teams when playing away. Their record in 13 important matches against teams that finished in the top nine last season, as well as those currently in the top nine, was only two points.
The beginning was marked by a devastating loss to Brentford in Ten Hag’s second match, which set the tone for their struggles on the road. Last season, they conceded 28 goals in eight away games (compared to only 15 in their other 30 Premier League matches). The scorelines of these games were dismal, with results of 4-0, 6-3, 3-1, 3-2, 7-0, 2-0, 2-2, and 1-0. However, this season has shown improvement with a 0-0 draw at Anfield and a better defensive record on away stages. Despite this, they have still suffered defeats of 2-0, 3-1, 1-0, and 2-0. As they arrived at Villa Park, they had only scored one goal in five important away games. However, they managed to score twice in this match, making it one of the greatest achievements of Ten Hag’s tenure.
He stated that the victory at Villa was inevitable, and there could have been even more wins. He expressed that they need to have more faith when playing away games. He believed they could have won against Arsenal and Liverpool. The key is having belief, and the team had it today.
Was it a sustainable strategy or a one-time occurrence? Villa’s success can be attributed in part to Rasmus Hojlund’s strong performance as a forward. Last season, only Marcus Rashford was consistently scoring, and even he only scored in two of the eight matches. Therefore, United’s best approach may be to outscore their opponents. However, they may struggle to win with a 1-0 score due to their lack of defensive stability. United typically have less possession of the ball, with the exception of a 66 percent share against West Ham’s defensive team. In fact, they have not had more than 45 percent possession in an away match against a top-nine team this season, including their 44 percent possession at Villa. They were unable to control the game. Ten Hag described it as a “tennis match” due to the back-and-forth nature of the match. United relied on a strong performance from Andre Onana, who has faced challenges during his time at the club.
They emerged victorious in the match but were defeated in terms of numbers. Villa had a total of 23 attempts and an expected goals figure of 2.65. This trend has been consistent throughout their six away games against Arsenal, Tottenham, Newcastle, Liverpool, West Ham, and Villa this season, with their opponents averaging 21 shots and an expected goals value of 2.25.
Last season, Manchester United allowed a total of 11 goals in three away games in the Champions League and three more in April’s Europa League match against Seville, which was a familiar trend. In the nine away games against top teams, their opponents had an average of 18 shots and an expected goals (xG) value of 2.39.
United can play games of transitions, looking for counter-attacks. Ten Hag lamented an overly attacking attitude at Villa. “We went in every situation for goal instead of keeping the ball,” he said. “We always want to control the game and dictate the game and that should be our approach.” Yet few teams play with less control than United. It made for a thriller at Villa; if their spirit suggested more such wins are possible, they have more to prove to justify Ten Hag’s belief they can beat any opponent away from home.
However, his strongest team was able to achieve this. During the 2018-19 season, his Ajax team secured victories over Juventus, Real Madrid, and Ajax. These impressive results played a role in his move to Old Trafford. Unfortunately, he has not been able to replicate these successes away from Old Trafford as much as desired since then.