Man United's Chaos Theory: Erik Ten Hag And The Delicate Art Of Control

Why can't Manchester United control a game of football?
10:02, 09 Nov 2023

Another week, another Manchester United humiliation. Having scraped past Fulham 1-0 at Craven Cottage on Saturday, the Red Devils may have thought they’d turned a corner. But around that corner another humbling defeat awaited.

In many ways their 4-3 loss to Copenhagen in the Champions League was a harder one to take than recent 3-0 defeats to Manchester City and Newcastle United. Those are Premier League outfits after all. Two of the top flight sides expecting to be sat in the top four at the end of the season, with City as likely as anyone to be champions once again. But Copenhagen were expected if not to be whipping boys then at least a soft landing for the sustained fall United have been on recently.


It wasn’t to be, though manager Erik ten Hag will argue there were mitigating circumstances. Certainly, Marcus Rashford’s sending off divided the opinion of broadcaster TNT Sports’ phalanx of pundits. Fans who watched Scott McTominay’s opener against Fulham chalked off for something called “subjective offside” will also wonder how Copenhagen were allowed to put a man on Andre Onana in an offside position as they scored their first. The door does swing both ways, with United’s penalty also looking decidedly soft on a strange night for the officials.

But chaotic games are going to happen. Just ask Tottenham Hotspur, who got put to the sword 4-1 this week by Chelsea. Ten Hag is unlikely to get the sort of fawning editorials Spurs boss Ange Postecoglou received for his curious decision to station his entire team at the halfway line when he had nine men. Beleaguered bosses rarely get afforded such leniency. 

You can argue Ten Hag has travelled far past the point where he deserved it. While Spurs’ drubbing felt like an aberration, this injury time defeat to the Danish champions was entirely avoidable, even with ten men. To sacrifice a 2-0 lead is careless. To throw away a 3-2 edge when you’ve battled back is downright ridiculous. But this is the problem with United’s modern approach.


Teams like Manchester City and Liverpool control the chaos when it arrives. But Ten Hag’s efforts to thrive in it rather than calm it have hurt United time and again. His pledge to make United the best transition team in the world invites chaos. The idea behind it is that United are supposed to thrive in those moments where neither team has clear control. Instead though, that lack of control consumes them.

What United need is the confidence to put their foot on the ball against a team like Copenhagen. The sure-footedness to take the sting out of an away game they were leading 2-0 and 3-2 at points. Even with ten players, that should not be beyond a team with United’s ambitions. But instead, they are so focused on the transitional moments that they fail to stem the flow of a game.

A team that fielded Bruno Fernandes, Christian Eriksen, Sofyan Amrabat, Raphael Varane and Andre Onana at points last night should not struggle to pass the ball. A group of veteran ball-players such as this should not struggle to keep hold the impetus against a side from the Danish Superliga. Transitions are all well and good but at 2-0 up, shouldn’t a bit of sensible pragmatism creep in? United can take the lead in a game through excellent team play, such as when Rasmus Hojlund finished off a superb move for the opener. Why can they consistently not apply these principles in order to control games?

Last night was a tricky night for Ten Hag. A sending off and several other marginal calls went against him, even if he did also benefit from one or two. But that hasn’t been an excuse in every game. Every game has seen United lack the basic elements of a team in the ascendancy. There is no confidence and no control to their approach. Last night was arguably a new low for United. If nothing changes, it won’t be the last.

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