Erik ten Hag enjoys an espresso before his press briefings at Carrington, and with Manchester United’s recent schedule being so intense, caffeine is a necessary stimulant.
To add to the Europa League’s Thursday-Sunday schedule, the Premier League has assigned United four Thursday night kick-offs. United’s third-round League Cup match likewise took place on a Thursday.
United is not impressed by the avoidable Thursday-Sunday weeks, but their record on the Sunday after-Thursday fixtures is 9 wins, 3 draws, and 2 losses. Ten Hag rarely blames setbacks on outside causes, and lamenting the Thursday slots would be uncharacteristic of him.
Ten Hag may soon find himself wishing the days were gone. United have a week between games against Wolves and Bournemouth, followed by a five-day break before their final league game against Chelsea.
United should have railed against that date, which was pushed back in order to accommodate television rights holders. Manchester City play at Brighton on Wednesday night, but United could have played on Tuesday if the broadcasters wanted to prevent a clash.
True winners will always be pressed for recuperation time. City has played three fewer games than United, whose complacency in the Europa League group stage added two more games to an already congested schedule with their play-offs against Barcelona.
The season will be the sixth-longest in United’s history. They won a total of 11 trophies in the more difficult seasons, and there were open-top bus parades down Deansgate at the end of 1994 and 1999.
“Tiredness is in the mind,” said Ten Hag last week. Ten Hag could have rotated more and been more decisive if United had looked leggy in the second halves of their recent games.
Why was Christian Eriksen on the field in the second half of a home FA Cup fixture against relegation fodder from the Championship? And why did Raphael Varane play the rest of the first half against Sevilla despite visibly being injured?
Ten Hag does not believe in ‘weakened’ squads, as evidenced by the six changes he made for the Europa League group stage opener against Real Sociedad. United fell 1-0 in difficult circumstances – Lisandro Martinez was wrongfully penalized for a handball inside the area – and Sociedad maintained their lead for the duration of the group.
The players who were promoted that night? Cristiano Ronaldo, Victor Lindelof, Harry Maguire, Casemiro, Fred, Anthony Elanga, and others. Certainly, hardly a disadvantage against a squad United defeated 1-0 two months later in San Sebastian.
Bruno Fernandes has only appeared in one match this season. He was suspended for the games against Aston Villa and Sevilla, and he was given the night off against Charlton. Fernandes has started 53 club games in the last nine months.
The Portuguese have started 117 of the 123 Premier League games in which he has been available. Two of the non-starts occurred in May 2021, when United had two games in three days following the cancellation of the Liverpool game, and on the final day of the season at Wolves, three days before the Europa League final.
Fernandes has not missed a single game for United since being driven into Carrington; his absence against Tottenham last year was due to illness. This season, despite wearing the captain’s armband on his bicep in 42 of the matches, his performance level has reached new heights.
Fernandes is one of seven players on whom Ten Hag can rely totally. Varane and Martinez, the rock-steady duo, are temporarily absent. Luke Shaw, who was too young in his first few years at United, now has such a perfect attitude that the left-back is one of the league’s most successful center-backs.
Casemiro is a contender for the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award, and United hasn’t had a midfielder like Christian Eriksen since Michael Carrick. Marcus Rashford has five goals in 17 games, but his performance level is not concerning, and he should still be able to match Robin van Persie’s 30-goal haul from 2012-13.
Antony, although a work in progress, was United’s standout performer in April, and he could grow more reliable over time. His form remains inconsistent; typical for a winger fresh to England who was still in Brazil three years ago. Prior to the World Cup, Diogo Dalot was completely trusted by Ten Hag, and he started in 20 of United’s 21 matches. Aaron Wan-Bissaka has started 24 games at right-back in the 36 since.
Seven solid starting isn’t bad for a manager who hadn’t seen a United game in this country this time last year. Ten Hag wants to add three first-team players in the summer to a club that presently has the same number of league goals as United did in the stifling second season under Louis van Gaal.
They require more stimulants.