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3 things Erik ten Hag should fix to bolster Manchester United’s top four hopes

Manchester United were beaten 3-1 by Manchester City in the derby at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday. Marcus Rashford had put the Red Devils ahead in the seventh minute with a stunning long-range strike, but Phil Foden ramped it up after the break to bag two goals before Erling Haaland sealed the deal for the hosts.

It was the 11th defeat of the Premier League season for Manchester United as they lost ground in the chase for a top-four berth to Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur. They now trail Aston Villa and Tottenham by six and 11 points, respectively. The Red Devils’ task is not helped by the fact they have played both Villa and Tottenham twice, although the pair do face each other at Villa Park next Sunday.

With new director Sir Dave Brailsford watching the Manchester derby, it hardly inspires confidence in Erik ten Hag’s tenure. Yet, the Dutch tactician was in no mood to give up and remained buoyant during the post-match presser. That said, here are three things Ten Hag should address quickly to get Man United back on track in the race for the top four.

  1. Decide on a defensive plan

In 27 Premier League games, Manchester United have conceded 39 goals and kept just seven clean sheets. It is possible to endure that kind of record if you’re scoring freely, but Ten Hag’s side have netted only 37 goals in the league thus far. Last season’s run to third place was largely on the back of defensive robustness, but that has been lacking this term.

Injuries have definitely been a factor, especially on the left of the back four. However, with Lisandro Martinez and Luke Shaw sidelined for long periods, Ten Hag must manage Raphael Varane and Jonny Evans—two experienced heads in the squad—well to keep them fit until the end of the season while handing more minutes to academy kid Willy Kambwala.

  1. Find a solution to protect Andre Onana

Andre Onana, signed from Inter Milan last summer as David de Gea’s replacement, endured a tough start to life at Old Trafford and faced criticism from fans and pundits alike. Due to his error-strewn performances, the Cameroonian shot-stopper was perhaps solely guilty of eliminating his team from the Champions League.

However, the 27-year-old’s form has improved since the turn of the year. Onana is clearly a talent and was brought in for his distribution skills to help the Red Devils play an aggressive, counter-pressing brand of football. While he has been more involved in building up play from the back of late and played a key role in Marcus Rashford’s goal in the Manchester derby on Sunday, the fact that United have faced 444 shots in the league which puts them only behind basement club Sheffield United (447) is something Ten Hag must fix. (credit: Opta)

A lot has been made about how Onana is one of the reasons behind United’s poor season but facts simply don’t back up the theory. The lack of combinations and cohesion between the defence and midfield keeps the Cameroonian busy but he remains firmly in credit.

  1. Play Bruno Fernandes as a false 9 until Rasmus Hojlund returns

Bruno Fernandes is at least one of the few United players unfamiliar with the crammed treatment room, despite the playmaker playing with a heavy knock since the 2-1 home defeat to Fulham. The United skipper started in a false 9 role against Man City on Sunday, with Rashford and Garnacho on the left and right wing respectively. The plan worked very well until at least the first half, with the Portuguese laying the ball beautifully for Rashford’s stunning strike in an eventual 3-1 defeat.

With Rasmus Hojlund still a couple of weeks away from returning to the team, Ten Hag using Fernandes as a false 9 would allow Rashford to operate from the left and Garnacho on the right. Rashford has always preferred playing on the left while Garnacho’s adaptation from the opposite flank this season has been worthy of praise.

With United facing Everton, Liverpool and Brentford this month, Ten Hag should persist with Fernandes through the middle until Hojlund recovers from his muscle problem.

Rohan Sengupta

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