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When things are going well for you in the Premier League, that’s usually the moment to prepare for chaos – and so it has proved for Erik ten Hag and Manchester United.
Ripped to shreds by their rivals Man City after a run of four successive wins prior, it is back to the drawing board for the Dutch boss in his ongoing bid to overhaul the club’s fortunes and bring them back to the big time.
On this display, that road seems long and arduous and a lot of work will need to be done on the training ground. Ten Hag has a tough task ahead of him and watching Phil Foden and Erling Haaland make a mockery of his team will have been painful.
He will have been furious with what he’s seen – but having arrested their early season slump and secured impressive wins over Liverpool and Arsenal, is it truly time for panic stations yet?
His side did score three goals against a team who will surely be lifting the Premier League title next summer, so there might still be reasons for optimism.
Here, Sportsmail outlines the reasons why Man United fans should be fearful that the club could slip into another crisis – but also why it might not be doom and gloom after all.
Manchester United were thumped 6-3 by rivals Man City – but is it time for panic stations yet?
REASONS TO BE FEARFUL
CONFIDENCE IS SHOT AND DEFENCE IS ALL OVER THE PLACE
When United found themselves 4-0 down at half time at the Etihad, you really did fear for them. Ten Hag’s men have already looked vulnerable at times this season after being smashed by Brentford, and this had shades of that defeat about it.
That day was humiliating as a team of Brentford’s modest resources were running riot against a club of United’s stature – and that was the more eye-opening result. Losing to City was expected, but it was alarming just how easy they made it look. Truth be told, it could have been 10.
But what was most concerning is that heads seemed to go with every goal that went in the back of the net. There seemed to be an air of defeatism – especially after the fourth – rather than anyone attempting to rally the troops.
United were hammered by their arch-rivals, who led 4-0 at half-time in the derby at the Etihad
Bruno Fernandes wore the armband on Sunday but he doesn’t look like a figure who will lift their spirits, while Ten Hag’s back four are still relatively unfamiliar with each other and may need more time.
Ten Hag’s post match press conference said it all as he admitted confidence was on the floor.
‘It’s quite simple, it’s a lack of belief,’ he said. ‘When you don’t believe on the pitch then you can’t win games. That is unacceptable. We get undisciplined at following rules and you get hammered, that’s happened today.
‘For the first goal we won the ball and could have created a great chance but instead we gave it easily away and then it was like a pack of cards.’
IT COULD GET EVEN WORSE WITH A TOUGH RUN-IN TO COME
This is not something Man United fans will want to hear or even contemplate, but their upcoming fixtures don’t exactly bring about confidence.
Next up is a tricky trip to in-form Everton, who have often proved something of a bogey team for the Red Devils. After that they play a dangerous and constantly improving Newcastle side before hosting Antonio Conte’s Tottenham at Old Trafford.
To round off a tough and busy month, they’ll travel to Chelsea before playing West Ham at home.
Of those five games, you’d expect them to take full points off Newcastle and West Ham, but the other games could be a real struggle. After watching their abject defensive displays this season, most teams are unlikely to be gripped with fear when facing United – instead, they should be licking their lips.
United have some tricky games to come against Graham Potter (L) and Chelsea, while they’ll also welcome Antonio Conte (R) and his Tottenham side
MIDFIELD LACKS COMPOSURE
We all thought United were going to be a passing machine under Ten Hag this season after impressing so much with his total football method at Ajax in the last few years, but it just hasn’t got going yet.
And against City, United were so sloppy in possession – with their passing all over the place. The warning signs of what was to come were there from the start as pass after pass went astray from the usually-reliable Christian Eriksen and the likes of Scott McTominay and Bruno Fernandes.
The players lacked authority, freedom and belief while on the ball – something club legend Gary Neville picked up on commentary as he accused them of ‘bottling’ the crucial derby.
‘The Manchester United players have bottled it, there is no doubt,’ he said. ‘They have not handled this derby at all. I expected so much more.
‘There has been no composure. They have never settled. They have been anxious and nervous on the ball and pulled apart by an outstanding team.’
The Red Devils lacked belief on the ball against City and they were sloppy in possession
TEN HAG LOOKS IN TWO MINDS ABOUT HIS PHILOSOPHY
Much of Ten Hag’s early reign has been dominated by question marks over his philosophy and the Dutchman has gone back and forth with how he wants to stamp his mark on the club – and he’s had to abandon his philosophy pretty early on.
After United were thrashed by Brentford earlier on in the season, Ten Hag realised his possession system wasn’t going to work – at least not at this stage and with the players he’s currently got. So out the window it went as he focused on a more direct and counter-attacking style to try to get results on the board.
That worked a treat in securing four straight wins against Liverpool, Southampton, Leicester and Arsenal, but against Man City his side just couldn’t decide what style they wanted to play.
Ten Hag has had to scrap his passing philosophy and go more direct this season – but his side are lacking a real identity now
Against a team like City, there has to be more aggression to stop the supply to their wide men and disrupt their passing rhythm. United needed to be more cautious while also hitting their rivals on the counter when the opportunity presented itself – but instead it was more a mish-mash performance.
United still had plenty of chances – they scored three times after all and had eight shots on target to City’s ten – but Ten Hag got the balance wrong and that will be a concern going forward if he still can’t find the right formula and stick to it.
CAN’T RELY ON VARANE
Raphael Varane was supposed to be the man who could finally deliver a solid and world class centre-back to United’s defence.
There is no doubts whatsoever about the Frenchman’s quality and if fit he is by far United’s best defender – but that’s a big if.
Varane was hauled off before half time against City with an ankle injury in the latest setback for the ex-Real Madrid man, having already missed 15 games last season with various fitness problems.
Raphael Varane gave United a scare after coming off with an ankle blow – the defender is quality but is no longer dependable
His injuries have run the gauntlet last season. You name the injury, he probably had it. Last season he suffered with a groin issue, a hamstring blow, muscular problems and was also struck down with Covid too.
Although Varane is not expected to be out for as long as first feared, you can bet it won’t be his only setback this season and it seems United can no longer rely on him. Harry Maguire’s issues have been well documented and most fans would be nervous having the England star replace him.
Ten Hag himself opted for Victor Lindelof when Varane was subbed off against City but United certainly look vulnerable when he’s not in the side. Ironically, after spending more than £230m on centre-backs in recent years, the club still look like they are in need of another one.
REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL
TEN HAG KNOWS HOW TO BOUNCE BACK
If anyone can rally the troops after United’s latest nadir, it’s Ten Hag.
After that dismal loss to Brentford, you wondered how on earth United were going to find the strength to regroup, let alone beat the much-feared Liverpool in their next game and he did both of those things.
This week it was reported the Dutchman has introduced a key leadership group made up of Bruno Fernandes, Harry Maguire, David de Gea and sub keeper Tom Heaton to try to bring about change at Old Trafford.
He will be looking to his influential figures once again as he begins a dressing room inquest into how they allowed City to run riot.
Ten Hag has been in this position before after rallying the troops following their dismal start to the Premier League season
CASEMIRO COULD MAKE AN IMPACT – IF HE GETS A CHANCE
Much of the outcry from United fans – other than despair over their woeful display – was the failure to start Casemiro against City, or in any Premier League game, since his £70m switch from the Bernabeu.
The Brazilian is widely seen as one of the best defensive midfielders on the planet, yet he’s been forced to wait for his first Premier League start.
He’s made four sub appearances for United and made one start in the Europa League, but many supporters are baffled why Ten Hag is yet to turn to him.
Casemiro is yet to start for United in the league but he surely can’t be ignored any longer
Casemiro joined Ronaldo in looking stunned on the bench as he watched City rip his side to shreds on Sunday, and you can bet there’s a part of him that is itching to earn his first start so he can show what his renowned talent can offer.
This is a guy who’s won four Champions League titles. He’s a winner and knows what it takes to win. After United’s disjointed looking midfield were swept aside by City, what could Ten Hag lose by starting Casemiro next time out?
ANTONY IS LOOKING PROMISING
Not all of United’s signings have hit the ground running this season, but Antony does look like he’s going to be a success after scoring in his back-to-back league games – and in two big games, too.
The big talking point was whether United had paid over the odds for the Brazilian winger after splashing out £85m to lure him from Ajax, but right now club chiefs won’t be bothered after seeing him have a positive impact.
He sealed their 3-1 win over league leaders Arsenal last month and then reduced the deficit against City with a beautifully taken strike, curling it into the left-hand corner in the second half.
That hint of his raw ability should be more proof for Ten Hag that he has a player on his hands who can be a matchwinner and change the landscape for United in an instant. From this point, he could really kick on – especially against opponents who aren’t as strong as City.
Antony scored for his second game in a row vs City and looks like he could make a difference
TOP FOUR STILL IN SIGHT
It shouldn’t be forgotten that United aren’t hanging in mid-table – like their rivals Liverpool – or lingering in the relegation zone, as they were at the start of the campaign.
The top four is still very much a realistic target, and that will have been Ten Hag’s objective when he first took the job.
United are just two points off fourth-placed Brighton and we’re only seven games in. There is still plenty of time to pick up more results and push the likes of Tottenham and Chelsea for a place in the Champions League.
A title tilt looks all but gone with Arsenal 11 points clear of them, but it’s certainly not impossible and they just need to stay in touching distance with those around them.
Man United are only two points off the top four – so it’s not quite panic stations just yet
THEY WON’T PLAY CITY EVERY WEEK!
Simply put, there are much easier challenges to come.
Ten Hag will be pleased he’s got Liverpool, Arsenal and City out of the way early – now he can focus on what he will hope are winnable games to come, and once games against Chelsea and Spurs are out of the way, he won’t face a big six rival until the new year.
United were blown away by City – but they’re an exceptional team and they won’t be the only side on the wrong end of a hammering from them this season.