Timid travellers Manchester United desperately need solution to Erik ten Hag’s awful big-game record

Timid travellers Manchester United desperately need solution to Erik ten Hag’s awful big-game record

It was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s last stand, a game from another era but a day that only delayed the inevitable. Manchester United’s first two scorers were Cristiano Ronaldo and Edinson Cavani, their combined age then a mere 70. They won 3-0 at Tottenham and the fading, failing manager sacked instead was Nuno Espirito Santo.

Solskjaer never won another match in charge of United. More than two years later, 30 October 2021 still stands out for another reason: it remains the last time United defeated anyone vaguely resembling a leading team in the Premier League anywhere other than Old Trafford.

They lost at St. James’ Park on Saturday, a result that – their hosts’ injury crisis notwithstanding – felt doubly predictable. Newcastle’s few home league defeats in the Eddie Howe era have been inflicted by the elite; Manchester United cannot win anywhere against teams with aspirations of qualifying for the Europa League, let alone the Champions League.

Because since Solskjaer’s increasingly seismic triumph over Tottenham, United have played 17 Premier League away games at Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, Spurs, Aston Villa, Newcastle and Brighton without prevailing in any; they did not even defeat the Newcastle that Howe inherited, the team mired in the relegation zone in December 2021. They have lost twice in 2023 to the current crop.

Those 17 games have produced just five points; their return under Erik Ten Hag is worse again. Only two of those points have come in the Dutchman’s reign, one against a Chelsea side bound for a bottom-half finish, the other against a Tottenham team managed by Ryan Mason. It gives him two points from a possible 33.

Ralf Rangnick’s two, meanwhile, came against Newcastle, before Howe could make any additions, and Villa coached by Steven Gerrard, an altogether less daunting proposition than Unai Emery’s current team. Which may reduce it all to one genuinely impressive result on the road against a top-eight calibre team in the post-Solskjaer era: the 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge overseen by the caretaker Michael Carrick when he benched Ronaldo.

It may bring back pangs of nostalgia for Solskjaer, for his unbeaten away campaign – albeit in lockdown – in 2020-21 as part of a 29-game sequence that featured wins at City and Spurs and, with Champions League qualification on the line, at Leicester. If Rangnick’s travails are scarcely Ten Hag’s fault, his own record is lamentable.

Ten Hag has failed to get his players firing on the road

(Getty Images)

A 7-0 defeat at Anfield may have been the nadir; a 6-3 at Manchester City last season flattered United, who were 6-1 down. Then, at least, they were scoring. Now they have one goal in three defining away games this season, drawing a blank in five of the last seven. They may have nine away goals in their Champions League group – and only one point to show for it – but they have been impotent in England.

And, on many an occasion, awful. Ten Hag could cite decent performances away at Arsenal both last season and this; but they have been outclassed at the Etihad Stadium, embarrassed at Anfield, dreadful on both of their last trips to St James’ Park.

On Saturday, Ten Hag used players who cost United half a billion pounds. They were still distinctly second best.

Now their record is so bad that Ten Hag could predict the line of inquiry. “I was waiting for that question,” he said, without seeming to have much of an answer. “We will also overcome this issue.” There were few indications how. He described his team as “resilient”, though there is little to support that assertion. There were times last season when United seemed a genuinely fine team who just needed to secure a statement result on the road. For much of the current campaign, they have looked a very poor one.

Either way, there has been insufficient resilience. His United have conceded 31 goals in those 11 matches; in some, they have been beaten from the start; in others, they have been on course for a draw before conceding costly late goals.

United’s senior leaders on the pitch have been unable to stop the rot

(Getty Images)

If resilience is supposed to come from senior players, serial winners and supposedly strong characters, in theory United should have had a host over the last 15 months: David de Gea, Andre Onana, Harry Maguire, Raphael Varane, Lisandro Martinez, Casemiro, Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford. Yet there has been a fragility.

For a while, it could be camouflaged. United were excellent in three-quarters of their league games under Ten Hag last year: those at Old Trafford, those away against bottom-half teams. A generous fixture list meant they were able to go to St James’ Park fortunate to be occupying sixth place. Not any more and now four of their next five matches, and seven of the next 10, are against possible top-half finishers, assuming Chelsea and West Ham both end up in the upper part of the standings.

They are the sort of matches they are not winning. Their next trip is to Anfield, a return to the scene of the 7-0. It was United’s worst result in 91 years. A repeat should be avoidable but there is little to suggest Ten Hag’s timid travellers can deliver the kind of result they have not got since Solskjaer’s reign.


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