Manchester United lost to Brighton 3-1 today their first home defeat in the Premier League since the same opponents beat them 2-1 over a year ago.
That one could have been chalked down to manager Erik ten Hag being new to the job but there were no such excuses available this time and few would disagree that the Dutchman must take his fair share of the blame for the result today.
There were five main areas in which his judgement could be questioned.
1. Poor team selection
While everyone was keen to see Rasmus Hojlund start at centre forward and while Anthony Martial has been in poor form, it would have made much more sense to start the experienced star and let him soak up the pressure for the first 45 – 60 minutes and then introduce the Dane against tired legs. He did the reverse, which led to boos from the crowd which in turn must have been demoralising for the Frenchman, who United need to be confident and motivated this season.
In addition, especially having selected Hojlund, both Alejandro Garnacho and Facu Pellistri would have been desperate to ping in countless crosses for him to try to convert, but instead Ten Hag opted for a completely different path with no wingers in the formation (see below).
2. Poor set-up
In the absence of the two first choice right wingers, Antony and Jadon Sancho, Ten Hag was widely expected to play Facu Pellistri on the right wing or switch Marcus Rashford to the right and start Alejandro Garnacho on the left. However, he did neither, electing instead to introduce Scott McTominay into midfield and play Marcus Rashford up front with Rasmus Hojlund in a 4-4-2 formation.
On reflection, this was a bad move. It was impossible to tell who was supposed to provide the width on the right, other than full back Diogo Dalot, and with so many personnel changes it was clearly too much of a tall order to expect the team to change so drastically from their regular formation as well as get used to the new faces.
3. Poor tactics
The set-up put United at a disadvantage but they were also found wanting tactically. It was as if Ten Hag was trying to “do a Pep” by pushing a defender from the back line to make an extra man in midfield. The problem was that this seemed erratic; one minute it was Lindelof, the next Martinez, and so the back line looked confused and haphazard and always a man short.
Casemiro’s role in all this was a mystery as the man who is known for being “Johnny on the spot” and reading the game so well never seemed to be in the right place at the right time.
Perhaps the double defeats to the Seagulls last season made Ten Hag obsess about winning the midfield battle but it was a case of more quantity, less quality in the centre of the park and the defence and attack suffered from the men they sacrificed to try to win the midfield battle that was still, ultimately, lost.
4. Slowness to react
The poor decisions above could have been mitigated had Ten Hag seen early enough that it was not working and made changes. But in fact United continued to flounder for an hour before the manager decided to reorganise. By then, they had lost all confidence and were chasing the game.
5. Poor choice of substitutions
Once Ten Hag finally did get round to bringing on the subs, he brought on Hannibal Mejbri and Martial. Admittedly the Mejbri sub proved to be inspired as the youngster scored a great goal, but the choice of two central players when the problems were clearly a lack of width was mystifying.
When he did finally bring on the wingers, there was only five minutes to go and the game was already lost.
The fact that he took 85 minutes before replacing the totally ineffective Scott McTominay also beggars belief.
The last thing United need is for fans to start turning on a manager who has infused confidence and stability into the club in his 14 month tenure. But everyone makes mistakes and those made by the manager today, more than any of the players, are the ones that cost the Red Devils three points.