Manchester United played 49 games in all competitions last season, the fewest matches the club has played in a single season in a long time, but fans wouldn’t have minded if it had been trimmed any shorter.
That was the club’s worst season since Tommy Docherty supervised relegation to the second division in 1973-74, and the end couldn’t have come soon enough. Fans were relieved when United was defeated 1-0 by Crystal Palace on the final day by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Michael Carrick, and Ralf Rangnick, who had been in command for three distinct periods.
United finished sixth in the Premier League, but it was their performance in cup competitions that meant the fixture list was noticeably quieter than usual, as it was announced in March – somewhat shamefully – that a trophy could not be won.
Erik ten Hag has only been in charge at Old Trafford for eight months, but the improvement he’s made is quite astounding.
Ten Hag understands that winning trophies are the fabric of the club. He is responsible for the club’s worst trophy drought in over 40 years, and the Carabao Cup victory in February felt momentous.
It not only ended the dry spell, but it was a trophy in his first season in command and silverware at the first opportunity. The Carabao Cup is England’s least coveted trophy, yet it is a trophy nonetheless.
Although fans may not want to be reminded, at this point in the season last year, United had already been eliminated from the Carabao Cup, the FA Cup, and the Champions League, and had just been thrashed 4-1 by Manchester City in the league.
Rangnick chose two midfielders, Paul Pogba, and Bruno Fernandes, to spearhead United’s attack on that lifeless afternoon at the Etihad, and it’s believed Marcus Rashford, who was spurned and started on the bench, thought about his future after that game.
Rashford has 26 goals a year later, and his rise has been rapid. Rangnick has found his level as Austria’s national team manager, while United is making inroads toward becoming a Premier League title contender under Ten Hag’s leadership.
The Carabao Cup has been won, and the FA Cup and Europa League remain viable options for more trophy, which means United have now played 41 games – just eight fewer than they did last season (49).
United have 12 Premier League matches remaining, and they will complete the season having played much more matches than they did last season.
Ten Hag has participated in each competition and has been rewarded. United became the only team in Europe’s top five leagues to remain in four tournaments before the Carabao Cup final, which was something to be proud of.
The Dutchman prefers to start his strongest possible team, regardless of the tournament, even if it appears insane not to rotate, such as when Casemiro started the second leg of the Carabao Cup semi-final despite United having a 3-0 aggregate lead.
The benefits of having a stable team are evident, but Ten Hag’s endearingly daring approach to team selection will almost certainly result in fatigue creeping into the dressing room near the conclusion of the season.
Throughout the last few months, the players have played every three or four days. When asked about the grueling schedule after the draw with Southampton, David de Gea confessed it was beginning to take its toll.
“I know, the number of games we’re playing is insane,” De Gea told MUTV. “It’s challenging, it appears simple, but playing every three days is difficult. The players are running a lot, and we don’t have much time to rest, but everyone is giving it their all.
“You see, every game we battle, try our hardest, and some games, like today, we lack one player, the players are a little tired, and we may lose some points, but the team is doing well, so let’s keep going.”
The matchups near the end of the season are more important, so there are fewer opportunities to rotate the team, but Thursday night’s Europa League match against Real Betis provides a nice opportunity to rest certain players.
United effectively ended the tie with a 4-1 victory last week, and numerous changes should be made for the return leg in Spain. Ten Hag does not like to alter his team, but in this situation, it is necessary.
Sticking to his golden role of minimal rotation against Betis makes little sense.