The FA Cup can define Manchester United’s season

 | February 27 | 

6 mins read

man utd old trafford scaled

Wednesday night sees Manchester United travel to Nottingham Forest in the fifth round of the FA Cup, and it’s fair to say that success for the Red Devils could be judged on their performance in the famous competition.

United were left stunned at the weekend, not for the first time this season, as they were defeated 2-1 by Fulham in the Premier League. This marked their fifth home defeat from 13 in the league this term.

Man United Markets

  • Man United to win the FA Cup - 15/2
  • Man United to beat Nottingham Forest - 6/5

This latest result has intensified the pressure on the position of Erik ten Hag in the Old Trafford hot seat, particularly with the arrival of Sir Jim Ratcliffe behind the scenes, who will oversee all footballing operations.

Yes, before Fulham they had won five in a row in all competitions, largely thanks to Rasmus Hojlund’s six goals in that run. But the truth is that most of the performances were unconvincing and the young Dane’s contributions merely papered over the cracks of Ten Hag’s baffling management.

The Dutchman had more than a respectable first year in English football in 2022-23. He delivered a Carabao Cup, guided United to the FA Cup final, as well as leading them to a third-place finish in the Premier League.

What was instrumental in United finishing third was their home form. Old Trafford was a fortress last term as the Red Devils won 15 of their 19 fixtures there, picking up 48 points from a possible 57. Only their bitter rivals Manchester City had accrued more with 17 wins.

Old Trafford has been far from a fortress this time around and what’s most frustrating about the defeats there is that bar City, they have come against teams beneath them in the table (Fulham, AFC Bournemouth, Crystal Palace and Brighton & Hove Albion.)

Some fans have been on Ten Hag’s back for this and although United have experienced plenty of results like this over the last decade, after appearing to turn a corner last year, the former Ajax boss should be showing the supporters that his side are still on an upward trajectory.

A coach in a position at a club such as Man United is expected to deliver success on a regular basis. Ten Hag seemed to pass the litmus test last year with the League Cup triumph but the hard work put in last year seems to have evaporated.

Many of his tactics this year have left fans perplexed. One that Jamie Carragher highlighted on the most recent edition of Monday Night Football highlighted how United attempt two different methods when it comes to defending at the same time.

Man United to win the FA Cup at 15/2

The forward/midfield players are pressing high while the defence are maintaining a low block, which allows the opposition a lot of space to exploit in between the United back line and attack. It is why they have been so easy to counter-attack this season.

Ten Hag has also come under fire for other bizarre tactics, such as deploying Marcus Rashford through the middle as a centre-forward when his best performances for United have come from playing down left, as shown by his excellent figures last year (30 goals and 11 assists in all competitions).

Another has been placing creative attacking midfielder Bruno Fernandes on the right of his attacking quartet, taking the Portugal international further away from the action, where he would have more of an influence on proceedings. 

The same applies to Christian Eriksen, another creative midfielder who Ten Hag has deployed deep in midfield a lot of the time, which in most cases takes him out of the game. It also never helped United in defensive situations due to the Danish star’s lack of experience playing that role.

Then there have been some poor in-game decisions, such as substitutions. When United visited the City ground to take on Forest, the place where they are going on Wednesday evening, Ten Hag replaced Kobbie Mainoo with Scott McTominay at half-time.

It was 0-0 at the break and the Tricky Trees went on to win the game 2-1. Former United goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel was as surprised as the United supporters at the change Ten Hag made at half-time.

He told Optus Sport: "I can understand you want Scott McTominay on, but not for the guy you take off. The guy you take off, young Mainoo, is such a good player and he played alright.”

"He was controlling that part of the pitch very, very well and there was no need to make that change when you have other players on the pitch that are doing absolutely nothing for the team.”

Currently, United also find themselves in an awkward position with regards to their defensive options. Luke Shaw has been ruled out for the next few months through injury and is unexpected to feature again this season. He joins the only other recognised senior left-back, Tyrell Malacia, who has been out since pre-season.

The Red Devils had loaned Sergio Reguilon from Tottenham Hotspur but he was sent back in January and the Spaniard is now on loan at Brentford, while United are without a left-back. This was a clear failure at one of the basics of football management.

Man United are sixth in the league and eight points adrift of Aston Villa in fourth, so they have it all to do if they are to finish in the top four this year. They crashed out of the Champions League rock bottom of their group, and their Carabao Cup defence ended in the fourth round, a 3-0 drubbing at home to Newcastle United, whom they defeated in last year’s showpiece.

As Ten Hag and company gear up for their trip to the East Midlands in the FA Cup, you get the feeling that the success of this season will be judged on how they fare in this competition. They got to the final last year against Man City, so they should fancy their chances to do so again this time around. 

For a club of United’s stature, success in a season is measured by silverware and to a degree qualifying for the Champions League. The FA Cup looks to be their best bet for either of the two this term, and winning it would make up for a lot of the mistakes that have been made along the way.

With the Ratcliffe and INEOS era underway at Old Trafford, big changes are on the horizon and Ten Hag, as well as several of his United players, are fighting for their futures to be a part of this promising rebirth. If that doesn’t spur them on then nothing will.

United’s position in the FA Cup could be season-defining, and for Ten Hag, it might just decide his future.

Man United to win at 6/5

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