Discounting international breaks, you have to go back to August to find the last time Manchester United did not have a midweek game. The last time they had a week between fixtures outside of an international break was when they played back-to-back Thursdays in the Europa League in September. This only came about due to the Premier League programme being postponed due to the death of Queen Elizabeth II. While the reasons for the schedule are positive, they have taken an almighty toll on Erik ten Hag’s team.
United’s run to the knockout stage of the Europa League, the final of the FA Cup and all the way to the trophy lift in the Carabao Cup has opened them up to a mammoth season. The Red Devils’ squad is not the deepest to begin with, with key frailties becoming ever clearer as the weeks go by. But a broader problem that has contributed to them taking four points from a possible 12 in their last four games has been fatigue. A season of frenzied activity is starting to take its toll.
The mountain of games United have endured was typified by the fact that Wout Weghorst, signed as a loan stop-gap in January, starting 16 games for the club. A player signed as back-up has become a necessity due to the stacked schedule and a dearth of options up front.
The midfield has taken a hit too with Christian Eriksen’s injury and Casemiro’s myriad of suspensions. Both are back in place now but, were it not for loan signing Marcel Sabitzer, one wonders how much more of a mess Ten Hag’s men would have been in.
A promising start to the season has gone south since the Carabao Cup final victory over Newcastle United in February. Liverpool endured similar last season, doing enough to secure both domestic cups before falling away in the Premier League and Champions League. Suspensions and injuries have contributed. But squad depth issues that predate Ten Hag taking the job last summer have too.
The fact United haven’t signed a top-rung striker or strengthened at right back is coming home to roost. David De Gea’s days as the Red Devils’ number one goalkeeper are surely numbered, in spite of his imminent new deal. The long-needed overall began last summer with the signing of Antony, Casemiro, Eriksen and Malacia. That work must continue this summer if United are to avoid another season where they start strong before suffering from diminishing returns.
But there is still much to play for in this campaign. Their recent drop-off has left United looking back nervously at Liverpool. Last season, Jurgen Klopp’s men ran out of steam at this stage. This time they seem to be picking up steam. The Anfield club are a point behind their rivals albeit having played a game more. United cannot afford any more slip-ups if they are to hold onto fourth place.
Ten Hag’s team might be better equipped to hold on than it appears. They will have had a recuperative six days since their last game when they play Wolverhampton Wanderers on Saturday afternoon. From there it’s another week until they play Bournemouth. It will be interesting to see if a fresher United can mimic the effectiveness they displayed earlier in the season. Beyond the fitness benefits, one wonders if more time on the training ground will also help Ten Hag to firefight some of the tactical shortcomings the team have displayed in recent weeks.
Give most managers a choice and, for all the moaning they’ll inevitably do as it plays out, they’ll pick a season with as many games as possible. It’s better to be tired and competing than resting up at home when the most precious honours are handed. But that doesn’t mean United’s players won’t be glad of a rest this week and next. It might just be enough to get them into the Champions League next season.
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