As bad as David de Gea’s error at West Ham on Sunday was, Erik ten Hag will have been more concerned by the lack of intensity to mount a comeback.
Manchester United dominated possession at the London Stadium, but the Hammers were not clutching on for dear life. David Moyes joked about taking a throw-in on the sideline instead of letting the ball roll behind him to waste away valuable seconds in the closing 15 minutes, such was his confidence.
Anthony Martial had the evening’s best chance, deflecting Bruno Fernandes’ corner too thinly and straight across the face of the goal, but it didn’t arrive until nearly the 90th minute. United had 19 shots on goal on the night, but only four were on target, indicating a team devoid of ideas.
It’s no wonder that this team is battling to finish strongly. The loss in the capital was their 57th of the season and their 33rd since the new year. Between the win over Bournemouth on January 3 and the game on Sunday, that’s an average of one game every 3.8 days.
Nine players have already featured in more than 40 games, with Fernandes, De Gea, and Marcus Rashford all-surpassing 4,000 minutes. United’s schedule has been unrelenting, and exhaustion appears to be catching up with them, whether they admit it or not.
Fortunately for everyone, there is now a full five days between Sunday’s defeat and Saturday’s visit of Wolves to Old Trafford.
With the exception of the March international break, when the squad was split for long periods and returned late, United has not had more than four days to recover since Christmas, when they had five days between victories over Burnley and Nottingham Forest on December 21 and 27, respectively.
Prior to that, it was September and the weekend of postponed fixtures after the death of the Queen on September 8 – United hosted Real Sociedad before facing Sheriff Tiraspol a week later.
The players have seen their initial available slots filled up by Europa League knockout games, Carabao and FA Cup ties, and re-arranged games from that weekend off.
The only other break since the World Cup was an international break, during which the vast majority of players were abroad with their respective countries, playing two or three games before returning late for the 2-0 loss to Newcastle at the beginning of April.
Back-to-back road defeats reinforce the Reds’ dismal away form – the Reds have gained just one point from their journeys to the current top nine’s homes this season – but the performances were also an indication of exhaustion, both mental and physical.
Returning to Old Trafford on Saturday to face Wolves will offer the confidence of a solid home record, but it should also bring the rejuvenated vigor of five full days of recuperation. Ten Hag will then have a week off before traveling to Bournemouth.
Chelsea and Fulham follow in eight days, but this time could be key in reviving the team ahead of their top-four push and a titanic FA Cup final against Manchester City. If the last week’s performances are any indication, they don’t need it.