Just how far can Erik ten Hag’s Manchester United fall?

Bruno Fernandes did not play in Manchester United’s Monday-night visit to Crystal Palace. It was the first game he missed through injury in his 520-game club career.

Fernandes is not thought to tire. Across 230 games for United, he has been the rising tide that has kept many leaky boats afloat. This was the first game he has missed this season since United’s 0-0 draw with Liverpool on December 17, 2023 (in which he was suspended).

The United captain was a doubt pre-match but the prevailing thought was that he would find a way to suit up and carry his team again. While others wilted in the harsh environments of United’s 2023-24 campaign, Fernandes was typically the one who did not wither.

This time, he could not make it. Fernandes had finally run out of lives. In his absence came an abject team performance in a United season that has struggled to produce a convincing one.

The most defiant response to the many Palace attacks came not from Erik ten Hag’s players but from the away support that chanted club songs even after their side went 4-0 down.

At Selhurst Park, United were soft in the middle, vulnerable out wide and limp up front. A starting midfield of Christian Eriksen, Kobbie Mainoo and Mason Mount offered a facsimile of Fernandes’ application but the trio could not replicate the creative energy or running effort of their captain.

Issues were further compounded by more changes to the back line. Casemiro and Jonny Evans made up Manchester United’s 14th different centre-back combination in the Premier League this season and lasted only 12 minutes before conceding. A fantastic dummy from Michael Olise gave the Brazil international twisted blood on the Palace winger’s way to scoring the opener. Neither Eriksen nor Mainoo retreated quickly enough to stop him. Ten Hag’s reshuffled defence was too late in responding to the hole that had emerged as Casemiro had been left floundering.

Palace’s front three were high in confidence and eager to attack a United back four low in familiar playing rhythms. Their second of the game came from Jean-Philippe Mateta merrily skipping past Evans before emphatically shooting past Andre Onana. Second-half goals from Tyrick Mitchell and Olise added insult to injury. Daniel Munoz’s body-check on Casemiro in the build-up to Palace’s fourth underlined the gap between the two sides. Palace were stronger, faster and more certain of themselves than United.

Casemiro, Manchester United

A crestfallen Casemiro at full-time (Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

Ten Hag’s team has now conceded 81 goals in all competitions (their most since 1976-77). This game — the worst defeat United have suffered this season — is the 21st occasion this side have conceded three goals or more during his tenure.

“We let each other down and you get the worst defeat,” was United manager’s assessment.

Ten Hag looks unsure of the skills that made him so impressive a season ago and is struggling to conjure any form of coherency from his squad.

United were out-thought and outfought for the entire evening. Oliver Glasner’s set-up saw Palace overwhelm United in central areas before looking to get the ball to Olise and Eberechi Eze, stretching United’s defenders out wide. The pair toyed with United’s back line while Ten Hag’s attackers could only toil in response.

The absence of the formerly ever-present Fernandes and the quietly revitalised Harry Maguire should not have led to such a dramatic collapse, and yet United appeared bereft of ideas or identity. The plan the United manager wants his players to carry out appears beyond several members of his squad. It also appears to be a plan with limited effectiveness, even on its better days.

“It was quite easy to see that they were better with the ball than without it,” was the opinion of one Premier League analyst when describing this iteration of United.

Ten Hag called his side “one of the most dynamic and entertaining” teams in the Premier League earlier this month, but it is the neutral observer or the famed ABU adversaries who are most thrilled when watching this team give up counter-attack after counter-attack.



Maguire’s stubborn refusal to be forced out of Man United is paying off

This 4-0 drubbing made for the club’s 13th league defeat of the season, their most since 1989-90. Since January 1, no Premier League team has conceded more shots than United’s 317.

A team that started the campaign with ambitions of re-establishing themselves as a Champions League-level side have not been in the top four since the opening week of 2023-24. They now look likely to finish in the Europa Conference League places or fail to qualify for Europe at all.

Jonny Evans, Manchester United

Jonny Evans was United’s only fit senior centre-back (Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

United have not finished a season with minus goal difference since 1989-90 but it is hard to predict which of their remaining fixtures will yield the right performances to dig themselves out of this hole. What is known for sure is United will finish this season with a lower points total than the 64 earned during the disastrous 2013-14 campaign under David Moyes. Despite this list of concerning statistics, Ten Hag believes he is the best person to get United out of this difficult predicament.

“If the right players are there and available; we have a good squad but we missed the entire back line,” said the Dutchman. “All season, we had huge injury problems. This is the fourth defeat this calendar year, which is not a lot.”

“I will keep fighting. I prepared the team in the best way I could. It was not good enough… it was not good enough by far. I take responsibility but I will find energy and prepare them for Sunday (when United host title-chasing Arsenal).”

The depth and variety of ailments United have suffered this season have made it hard to enact his preferred tactical plan but Ten Hag’s inability to change from his desired “script” has hastened a slide down the table.

The end result is an organisation lurching towards rock bottom, unsure of how to halt the descent or how much further they have to fall.

(Top photo: Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

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