Erik ten Hag didn’t want to talk about the players who are unavailable to Manchester United, and certainly not about one who, if the club are true to their word, will never be in contention for them again. He was not referencing the alleged off-field conduct that has ended Mason Greenwood’s Old Trafford career when he said he wanted “accountable” footballers, or when he criticised the unacceptable.
Instead, six days on, he remained angered by the manner of United’s defeat by Tottenham. It has been a damaging week for them, the resolution of a six-month investigation into Greenwood nevertheless tainting United’s reputation amid the sense they wanted to keep him, and their admission it was one of the scenarios they planned for. Ten Hag’s refusal to answer if he wanted Greenwood in his squad was explained by his preference to discuss those he can call upon. But their number has been depleted by two: first Mason Mount, out for several weeks with a hamstring strain sustained at Spurs, and then Luke Shaw, ruled out for longer and leaving Ten Hag without both of his senior left backs for perhaps two months. Factor in the loss of three points and United have been harmed.
Ten Hag deemed it self-harm, finding plenty of fault with what he saw at Tottenham. A year ago, defeat in London in the second game of their season prompted Ten Hag to call his players in and run 13.8km with them; because Brentford had run 13.8km in beating them 4-0. Fast forward to 2023 and a lack of running – or the right kind, anyway – was an issue again. “They didn’t run,” he said. “Or they run in the wrong moment, too late. Especially the front didn’t recover.” The midfield was criticised, with Mount’s troubled start highlighted, but Ten Hag felt the problems came ahead of and behind them. “It is not about the midfield, it is about the back and the front,” he explained. “That is why we were open.”
In August 2022, United were 4-0 down after 35 minutes to Brentford. A year on, the difficulties came in the remaining 55 minutes. “First 35 minutes, we were so good, dominated the game totally, we should have scored minimum once – but I think two,” said Ten Hag. “They were nowhere, nothing, and then things happened in the game, then they got distracted, not doing their jobs anymore. That is a demand from a Manchester United player and team, I am not used to it from this team, because they always do.
“We played very good 35 minutes against Spurs, but the demand is that at Manchester United you do it 90 minutes. I told them, I gave them the feedback, ‘This is not acceptable.’ We have to do it as a team, do it with togetherness. Every one individual has to take responsibility. We need accountable players.”
Which, he said, was not his attempt to dodge the blame. “We are in the same boat. I am responsible for it, me as well,” he added. “We will win games if everyone is doing their job.”
Yet winning matches has become harder now. Shaw’s absence could alter their plans in the transfer market. “It can be because I think always you have to anticipate on situations. If there are good opportunities, yes,” said Ten Hag. “Otherwise we have to deal with the current squad. We went through the scenarios before the season, in our transfer strategy, and if it happened we have the solution.”
That could mean a role for Diogo Dalot on the left. But if Ten Hag may look to buy a left back, he is adamant he will not try to sign a striker. A club with a solitary league goal this season – and that from a defender, Raphael Varane – and only 59 in 39 matches under Ten Hag have been short of firepower. There was a theory that United were waiting for Greenwood to become the late reinforcement to their forward line. But if one of Ten Hag’s outfield acquisitions was injured in his second outing, in Mount, the other was sidelined before he can debut, in Rasmus Hojlund. He is the reason he is not looking for attacking additions.
“Rasmus will be available from next week on,” Ten Hag said. “With Rasmus and Anthony Martial, we have coverage. Of course, we have Rashy [Marcus Rashford] as well there. We have enough players to cover – and quality players – to cover that position.”
If it places an added onus on the young Hojlund, he will miss Saturday’s clash with Nottingham Forest. And, as Ten Hag suggested, the players have to be accountable. He got a response in United’s third game of last season, with an impressive victory over Liverpool. Now, once again, United look to put a false start to the season behind them.
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