Anonymous Casemiro and questionable selections: what’s wrong at fragile Manchester United?

United need to win three of their last four league matches

Manchester United’s priority this season is Champions League qualification. February’s Carabao Cup triumph sprinkled winners’ stardust on the club after a six-year wait and Erik ten Hag’s side can add the FA Cup by beating Manchester City in next month’s final. But each would be exchanged for the top‑four finish which is viewed, as Ten Hag has said, as a must.

Yet since being 2-0 ahead at home to Sevilla on April 13th in their Europa League quarter-final first leg, United’s form has flatlined. That game ended 2-2 and only two of the following seven were won in regulation time, with Brighton beaten on penalties in the FA Cup semi-finals. Ten Hag has talked proudly about how his team have bounced back from defeats but Sunday’s reverse at West Ham meant two losses in a row for the first time since August.

It has left the Dutchman requiring victory in three of the last four league matches to ensure a Champions League berth. What, then, has been going wrong … ?

Questionable decisions

A Ten Hag mantra is that if Anthony Martial is in the starting XI, United always play better. Yet after the loss at Brighton the striker was dropped for the defeat at West Ham. The No 9 was under par in the first of those games but this was a first start after two games coming off the bench, so he might have been allowed more time to regain rhythm. For Wout Weghorst to be Martial’s replacement and then be taken off for the Frenchman after 57 minutes at West Ham suggested muddled thinking.


Another example: the manager maintains that any player excluded from the side should be ready to seize his chance because this is how “top football” works. Marcel Sabitzer seemed to have done precisely this by scoring twice in the home draw with Sevilla. Yet he was dropped for the FA Cup semi-final win over Brighton, reinstated for the 3-0 loss at Sevilla, played 86 minutes of the victory over Aston Villa but was a late substitute at Brighton and West Ham. Why?

David de Gea’s latest wobble

The goalkeeper’s erratic performances hardly engender confidence and could be problematic in United’s final four matches of the league campaign. In United’s last match his attempt to stop Saïd Benrahma’s speculative long-range shot was weak. The ball slipped past him and so Ten Hag’s side departed West Ham without any points and in a far less upbeat mood regarding their prospects of a top-four finish.

The errors of an elite No 1 should be as rare as the penalty misses by an elite centre-forward but De Gea was also culpable for two of Sevilla’s goals in the away defeat. The Spaniard’s form is shaky at the worst moment of the campaign.

Curious case of an anonymous Casemiro

The Brazilian has gone from a contender for United’s player of the season to the misfiring man of the midfield, a reversal that can be traced back to his sending-off against Crystal Palace in February’s FA Cup win. A footballer whose absence, Ten Hag had said, would represent a serious blow let his manager and team down by grabbing Will Hughes by the neck. A red card and a three-match ban followed. He returned to score the opener in the Carabao Cup final but was anonymous in the 7-0 defeat at Liverpool and was shown a straight red card for a second time in eight outings the next week against Southampton.

Cue a four-match suspension and a third ban of the season for the 31-year-old, who had collected five yellow cards by mid‑January, meaning he was absent for the defeat at Arsenal. Missing eight matches, more than 20 per cent of the 38-match Premier League season, because of indiscipline is the antithesis of professional. He may not be learning, either, because Casemiro has since collected two more domestic yellows (plus a European one) and, after these infractions, Ten Hag’s engine-room leader has been muted.

Away form

Desultory is a word, pathetic another. Whereas United have not lost in the Premier League at Old Trafford since Brighton beat them on the opening weekend of the season, their 18 trips have ended in eight losses and only seven victories, meaning 24 points collected from the 54 available. Ten Hag has not been able to fathom why but it may be due to a variety of factors. One is a toothless attack – Marcus Rashford has 16 league goals but only four in away matches, though this tally amounting to close to a fifth of the total of 21 scored by the team highlights a lack of support.

Another reason is the fragile in-game mentality Ten Hag has cited, which makes his players unable to dig deep when required in front of a hostile support.

The Glazers’ lack of ambition

The owners view Champions League qualification rather than challenging for the title as the requirement. The latest illustration came after Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure in November. This left United requiring an elite-level forward, yet in the January window Ten Hag had funds only for a loan deal for Weghorst (whose CV showed two goals in 20 Premier League games for Burnley) and the same agreement for Sabitzer, a Bayern Munich reserve. This left the manager’s squad lacking depth and quality, and has been exposed by United’s loss of form in late season. – Guardian