Champions League to define Ten Hag’s first season at Man Utd

Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag thinks his side will qualify for the Champions League; Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp agrees. With nine points needed from their last four games — three of them at Old Trafford — United should finish in the Premier League‘s top four, but then they should have beaten relegation battlers West Ham United on Sunday and didn’t.

The 1-0 defeat at the London Stadium has left Ten Hag and his players facing an anxious end to the season. Liverpool are a point behind, although they have played one game more. Crucially, though, Liverpool are on a run of six straight wins; United have won one of their past four.

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Klopp says he still thinks United will do it, but after Liverpool’s 1-0 win over Brentford on Saturday, he described the race as “interesting.” Ten Hag’s team — missing key players, struggling to score and looking exhausted after a gruelling season — are limping towards the finish line, and there’s a growing fear among supporters that they’ve lost all their energy and momentum at the most inopportune time.

Champions League qualification, and the revenue it produces, is vital for the Old Trafford accountants, but it will also shape how Ten Hag’s first season is viewed. A top-four finish, plus winning the Carabao Cup and reaching the FA Cup final, will make the Dutch manager’s debut campaign an inarguable success given the mess he walked into a year ago. The mood around the club is on a knife edge, though, and the summer will look very different if United are pipped to fourth by Liverpool, Manchester City win the Treble and the ongoing battle for ownership ends with the Glazer family announcing that they’re staying.

Winning the club’s first trophy since 2017 was a significant moment for Ten Hag, but it tells you how important the Champions League is that qualifying has been his top priority since he arrived from Ajax. There’s no suggestion that Ten Hag’s future as manager is in jeopardy, but no United boss in the 10 years since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement has remained in charge after missing out on the Champions League following a full season in charge.

Despite back-to-back defeats to Brighton & Hove Albion and West Ham, Ten Hag insists he’s still confident of finishing in the top four. United need three wins from four games to be sure and face Wolverhampton Wanderers, Chelsea and Fulham at Old Trafford, as well as a trip to Bournemouth.

Their home record in the Premier League this season reads P16, W12, D3, L1 — the defeat coming against Brighton way back in August. Wolves and Fulham, 13th and 10th in the table respectively, have little left to play for, while Chelsea have won just once since Frank Lampard took over as caretaker manager. United missing out from this position would represent a monumental collapse.

Yet some fans think United are doing just that. They’ve scored eight goals in their past 10 league games and conceded 13, while the 10 league games before that yielded a return of seven wins, 21 goals and only eight conceded. Compared to Liverpool — 27 goals scored, 14 conceded and 2.20 points per game over their last 10 — also adds to fans’ anxieties.

Man United’s squad have already played 57 games this season, but Ten Hag insisted after the defeat to West Ham that the downturn in form is nothing to do with tiredness. However, sources have told ESPN that there is concern behind the scenes that the workload — which included a winter World Cup in Qatar — has caught up with the players.

Ten Hag’s approach in news conferences has been to play it down, with the 53-year-old, according to sources, feeling that there is nothing to be gained by offering up excuses in public. Speaking at the London Stadium, he said that “tiredness is in the head” made an impact, but United’s players have far more minutes in their legs than their Liverpool counterparts.

David de Gea, Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford have all played more minutes across all competitions than any Liverpool player, while defender Lisandro Martinez has only played 57 minutes fewer than Virgil van Dijk despite missing the past month with injury. Fernandes, meanwhile, has played 63 games for club and country since the start of the season — more than anyone else in Europe.

For the first time since September, United have a free week between games and, despite the defeat at West Ham, Ten Hag took the opportunity to give his players two days off ahead of Wolves’ visit to Old Trafford this weekend. He can only hope the rest will re-energise his players ahead of a run-in that includes the chance to halt City’s Treble charge in the FA Cup final at Wembley on June 3.

Beat Wolves on Saturday and much of the concern for United’s place in next season’s Champions League will disappear. Anything less and a campaign that showed so much promise for so long will be in danger of ending in disappointment.

Information from ESPN’s Stats and Information Group was used in this story.