How far can Manchester United fall from Erik ten Hag?

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

It is believed that Fernandes does not tire. Over the course of 230 appearances for United over the past four years, he has been the rising tide that has kept many a leaky boat afloat. This was the first game he has missed since the goalless draw with Liverpool last December (for which he was suspended).

The United captain was a doubt before the game, but the prevailing view was that he would find a way to go out there and get his team going again. While others wilted in the harsh environments of United’s 2023-24 campaign, Fernandes was usually the one who did not wilt.

This time, he failed. Fernandes had finally run out of lives.

In his absence came an abject team performance in a United season that struggled to produce a convincing one.

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

United were soft in the middle, vulnerable outside and lame up front. A starting midfield of Christian Eriksen, Kobbie Mainoo and Mason Mount provided a facsimile of Fernandes’ demand but could not replicate their captain’s creative energy or running effort.

United’s problems were further compounded by several changes to the back line.

Casemiro and Jonny Evans made up Ten Hag’s 14th different centre-back combination in the Premier League this season and survived just 12 minutes before conceding – a fantastic dummy from Michael Olise gave him blood the Brazilian international midfielder on the way to the French winger who scored the opener. Neither Eriksen nor Mainoo retreated quickly enough to stop Olise and Ten Hag’s reshuffled defense responded too late to the hole that appeared when Casemiro was left reeling.

Palace’s front three were confident and eager to attack a back four down in familiar rhythms of play.

The second of the game came from Jean-Philippe Mateta, who leapfrogged Evans with glee before firing emphatically 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 the fourth underlined the difference between the two sides: Palace were stronger, faster and more sure of themselves.

Casemiro, Manchester United

A deflected Casemiro in time (Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

The Ten Hag’s side have now conceded 81 goals in all competitions this season (United’s most since 1976-77). The game – United’s worst defeat of the current campaign – is the 21st time United have conceded three or more goals during the Dutchman’s 21-month tenure.

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

The Ten Hag seem unsure of the skills that made him so impressive a season ago and are struggling to conjure up any form of consistency in his squad.

United were outplayed and outplayed all evening. Oliver Glasner’s set-up saw Palace overwhelm their visitors in central areas before looking to get the ball to Olise and Eberechi Eze, stretching United’s defenders. The two toyed with United’s backline as Ten Hag’s forwards only struggled in response.

The absence of the old Fernandes and the quietly revitalized Harry Maguire should not have led to such a dramatic collapse, but United looked bereft of ideas or identity. The plan that Ten Hag wants his players to carry out appears beyond several members of this team. It also seems to be a plan with limited effectiveness, even on its better days.

“It was pretty easy to see they were better with the ball than without it,” was the view of one Premier League analyst when describing this iteration of United ahead of last night’s game.

Ten Hag called his side “one of the most dynamic and entertaining” sides in the Premier League earlier this month, but the neutral observer or famous opponents ABU (Anyone But United) are most excited to watch this counter-attacking side after the counterattack.

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The 4-0 drubbing at Selhurst Park resulted in United’s 13th league defeat of the season – their heaviest since 1989-90. Since January 1, no club has conceded more shots in the Premier League than United (317).

A team that began the campaign with ambitions to re-establish themselves as a Champions League-level team has not once finished in the top four. They now look set to either finish sixth in the Europa Conference League or not qualify to play European football at all in 2024-25.

Jonny Evans, Manchester United

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

United now have a Premier League goal difference of minus three. They haven’t finished with a negative goal difference since that 1989-90 season (when they finished 13th, five points clear of relegation), but it’s hard to predict which of their remaining games will give them the right performances to push themselves reveal hole.

What is certain after last night is that United will end this season with a points total less than the 64 they achieved in the disastrous 2013-14 campaign played mostly under David Moyes.

Despite this list of worrying statistics, Ten Hag believes he is the best person to get United out of this predicament.

“If the right players are there and available, we’ve got a good squad – but we’ve missed the whole back line,” he said. “Throughout the season, I had big problems with injuries. This is their fourth loss this calendar year (in 20 games), which isn’t much.

“I will continue to fight. We prepared the team in the best possible way. It wasn’t good enough…it wasn’t good enough by a long shot. I take responsibility but I will find energy and get them ready for Sunday (when title-chasing Arsenal go to Old Trafford).

The depth and variety of ailments United have suffered this season have made it difficult to implement his preferred tactical plan, but the Ten Hag’s inability to change the desired ‘script’ has hastened a slide down the table.

The result is an organization headed for rock bottom, unsure how to stop the descent or how far it has to fall.

Manchester United’s remaining Premier League fixtures: Sunday, May 12 — Arsenal (home); Wednesday, May 15 — Newcastle (home); Sunday, May 19 — Brighton (away).

(Top photo: Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

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