LONDON — It was the inevitability of this latest Manchester United defeat that is so damning for manager Erik ten Hag. After all, did anyone expect anything else from a team that haven’t scored for four games in a row across all competitions? (It’s the first time this has happened since November 1992.)
For 72 minutes against West Ham, United had almost two-thirds of the possession and their best five attacking players had been on the field. But they created embarrassingly little.
United hung on for a 0-0 draw at Liverpool last weekend, but could not do so again at the London Stadium. Jarrod Bowen converted the opener from Lucas Paqueta’s superbly floated pass, before Mohammed Kudus‘ low drive secured a 2-0 win that sends West Ham above United and, temporarily at least, up to sixth in the Premier League table.
In a further blow to Erik ten Hag’s credibility, Kudus and his former Ajax teammate Edson Álvarez provided more quality than anyone in a United shirt managed all afternoon. What did the former Ajax boss see in Antony that he didn’t see in Kudus? The Brazilian winger, a €95 million signing in 2022, continues to be one of the most frustrating footballers around. He could find a cul-de-sac in a desert.
Alejandro Garnacho looked the most threatening outlet for the visitors, but his end product let him down, contributing to a lack of service that extends £72m summer arrival Rasmus Hojlund’s Premier League record to 15 games, 0 goals, 0 assists. Hojlund managed 17 touches in his 57 minutes before being replaced by Marcus Rashford (who touched the ball 13 times) for the final 33 minutes, while captain Bruno Fernandes endured another wasteful afternoon.
On an individual level, these players have to take a degree of responsibility for their slump in form. But the collective malaise reflects badly on Ten Hag. United have scored 18 goals in 18 league games this season — two more than Burnley, who are bottom of the table, and the same number as Crystal Palace who sit 15th.
United’s goal difference is now -4, a farcical tally at this point in the season for a team with top-four ambitions and even last season, when Ten Hag appeared to be making forward strides, United only managed 58 goals in their 38 matches, the lowest number in the top six.
United chose to address that by signing the 20-year-old Hojlund instead of pursuing a proven goal scorer in Tottenham’s Harry Kane before he moved to Bayern Munich. And the forward line is struggling as a result. Antony is inconsistent; Garnacho is undeniably talented but needs coaching; Rashford has lost his way and requires careful management. As a group, they increasingly look lost.
“They are capable,” said Ten Hag. “I know Rashford can score a goal, Hojlund can score a goal, Antony can score goal, Garnacho can score a goal, Bruno can score a goal, Scott McTominay can score a goal.
“We have the scoring abilities in our squad and also from set plays. In this moment, we are not doing it. We have to stick together, but also they have to believe in themselves that they can do it, that they can get where they have to be, where you have to score and that is in the box, especially in the six-yard box. There you have to arrive as a striker. We attack with 11 so with one of them.”
Asked specifically about Hojlund as he cast another long shadow on Saturday, Ten Hag said: “I think he is a very strong character and he can deal with those stresses. I took him off, he was ill during the week. A little bit of a lack of power. So in that sense, I protected him [by bringing him off]. We have to play two more games this week but we can’t feel sorry for ourselves. No one. We have to take the responsibility, if you are a player for Manchester United you have to do it together. Everyone has to be accountable and take responsibility.”
For a long time, the game against West Ham was a desperately dull affair. The Saturday lunchtime kick-off time probably didn’t help, especially in the midst of December’s busy schedule. The last eight games to kick off at 12.30 p.m. in the Premier League have seen just two first-half goals scored combined. But as with most things these days, United’s record is worse. They have now scored just two goals in their past nine first halves of league football.
Garnacho had a good chance after 35 minutes when Kudus gifted United possession in West Ham half and although there was a little more urgency in their play after half-time, Ten Hag’s side ended with an expected goals (xG) figure of just 0.88 — their highest of the past four games has been a lowly 1.16 vs. Bournemouth.
Willy Kambwala did not look out of place on his debut — the 19-year-old French player deputising at centre-back with Raphaël Varane joining United’s injury list through illness — while Kobbie Mainoo brought some composure to United’s midfield before allowing the ball to slip under his foot for Kudus to break away and score the second. But positives were few and far between for United, who have now lost more games this season than in the entirety of their previous campaign and host in-form Aston Villa at Old Trafford on Boxing Day.
“Football is about winning games and scoring goals,” said Ten Hag afterwards.
United are not doing either at present. It all feels so predictable, and the manager has to find a way to break the cycle soon.