And so the revelations, such as they are, continue to pour forth from Old Trafford. A few days on from a suggestion he couldn’t play the same way at Manchester United as he did at Ajax because he now has different players, Erik ten Hag walked that back somewhat to insist he’s looking for something of both clubs.
“The explanation from my point of view was totally wrong that I can’t play like Ajax because I have different players,” he said ahead of this weekend’s game at Fulham. “I came here with my philosophy based on possession but also [I want] to combine it with the DNA of Manchester United and combine it with the competences and the characters of the players. We have seen what it was. We played very good football last season.”
Perhaps they did, at times, but they certainly haven’t this term. The attacking play is ponderous, lacking confidence, inconsistent. United have netted five goals in their last five Premier League games. They average 1.1 per match this term, the lowest in the current top 12.
And yet as poor as United have been on the front foot and in the final third, their defensive work is entirely worse: a dismal lack of intensity, aggression, cohesion, positioning and partnerships. That is all exemplified not just by the defence, but by Ten Hag’s midfield, which remains a muddle and a mystery.
That’s despite four signings in that area since last summer – five if we include the Marcel Sabitzer loan – which will total over £170m. And yet Saturday’s game at Craven Cottage will see them come up against a player who has been monstrous in that part of the park, who has improved and impressed since joining and who was very much available in August for a transfer: Joao Palhinha.
It’s of course too simplistic to say United should have just signed him. But perhaps his abilities, and those United seriously lack, showcase where their greater focus should have been. After all Fulham still needed a replacement, the reason his transfer to Bayern Munich fell through, and Ten Hag clearly wanted to allocate big funds toward a centre-forward as well as a goalkeeper.
But in United’s soft centre, up to £60m on Mason Mount and a £9m loan fee dedicated to Sofyan Amrabat – with another £21m to follow to make him permanent – could easily have covered the outlay to land Palhinha, whose many attributes would certainly bring plenty of what Ten Hag currently lacks.
Aerial ability and challenging power in the centre, for one and two. Watch back at least two of Newcastle’s midweek goals in United’s Carabao Cup dismantling and a ball-winner of the Portuguese’s calibre wouldn’t go amiss.
Indeed, Palhinha comfortably leads the way in the English top flight for tackles per 90 minutes, his 6.3 being streets ahead of any other player with 100 minutes or more under their belt. His nearest challengers in that regard are Brighton midfielder Carlos Baleba (4.7) and Everton full-back Vitalii Mykolenko (4.5); no Man United player breaks the top 15 in that particular chart with Amrabat (3.7) their top offering.
Often a single stat can be misleading in isolation, of course, given the difference in teams’ possession, match dominance, place in the table and so on. But Fulham and United are hardly leagues apart: eighth (United) and 14th (Fulham) in the standings, they are separated by just three points ahead of kick-off and are eighth and 11th for average possession, allow 14 and 12.5 shots per game respectively and both commit precisely 10.2 fouls a game. Stylistically and in league table terms, there are similarities right now in what they are facing.
Palhinha is doing a better job of coping with it than anyone else at United, however.
Ten Hag’s hand hasn’t been helped by injuries as he tries to restructure the midfield; Mount’s early-season absence meant he couldn’t build on a disjointed start very quickly, while Casemiro has been suspended in Europe, missed three games with injury domestically and now is injured again. That all doesn’t help to build those partnerships which must be the basic pillars underpinning improved defensive work.
There’s also a clear and alarming lack of drive and determination about much of United’s play – or lack of play – which one signing alone doesn’t look capable of fixing. After all, transferring in more than one individual from Real Madrid hasn’t done it, changing captains hasn’t done it and a stern, unflexible approach from the manager on multiple squad disciplinary matters certainly hasn’t done it.
It may or may not ultimately affect the final score, but in general open play at the Cottage on Saturday, the assumption should be that if a team dominate and show greater control, it’ll be the hosts and it’ll be because of Palhinha’s power and Marco Silva’s better balance in that area of the pitch.
And given United have conceded as many as Fulham have this term, perhaps Palhinha will indeed affect the scoreline: not just a defensive warrior, his two goals make him the team’s joint-top scorer in the league so far, a paltry tally which even so only one United player can better: Scott McTominay.
Given Ten Hag has repeatedly tried to move on from the Scot in midfield, too, it only heightens the feeling the Dutch boss has got things terribly wrong in the middle – and might be about to witness firsthand the type of route he should have taken.