Man United remain on chaotic run with no signs of stopping

Manchester United‘s affinity for chaos shows no signs of letting up as their run of madcap performances enters a fifth consecutive week. A warm and bright sunny evening on England‘s south coast isn’t a typical backdrop for hedonism, but that is what Bournemouth and United served up in a reckless 2-2 draw, with only a tight VAR decision preventing the home side an opportunity to complete the double over Erik ten Hag’s team this season.

United have oscillated wildly in all five matches they’ve played over the past four weeks, playing poorly and yet repeatedly being denied victory by late goals. A trip to the seaside to face Andoni Iraola’s resurgent Bournemouth seemed ripe for more calamity and, tellingly, the home side were the bookies’ favourites before kickoff.

Coming into this match, ten Hag’s side had faced a total of 162 shots (an average of 27 per match), with only Sheffield United having weathered more in the Premier League. Bournemouth added another 20 here. Not even the Vaseline slathered on André Onana‘s gloves could save them, with Dominic Solanke‘s effort from the edge of the area evading the goalkeeper’s right hand on its way into the bottom corner to open the scoring in the 16th minute.

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Ten Hag is adamant that “transitions” of attack and counterattack are all part of the plan and will yield results. It can leave you feeling as if the match is being played on the deck of a ship on stormy seas, with the outfield players careering from one side of the pitch to the other, almost ceaselessly.

His tactics were vindicated when Bruno Fernandes volleyed in an equaliser from a couple of yards out following a determined surge forward by the United attack. However, the madness to his method raised its head again just five minutes later when Justin Kluivert flummoxed the United defence by standing still in a dangerous position on the left wing. He duly received the ball, cut inside, and fired beyond Onana to score his fourth goal in his past six games.

“[That goal was] something to do with the organisation,” ten Hag said. “You need some coaching there. Then you stop that at source and then in the second phase it was too easy over the right side.

“There was a big gap and Kluivert should never get that ball there. But then we have to close it, so yeah, that’s clear and obvious.”

Still, the shots kept coming. Milos Kerkez hit the crossbar from a header, Onana denied Kluivert as he slid in at the back post, Harry Maguire hacked one over the bar from 30 yards and Fernandes hit the woodwork with an exquisite effort, all in the space of 10 minutes to finish the first half.

No matter how you try to spin United’s Premier League season, the chances of it ending positively are effectively over. With six games to go, they are 10 points behind Aston Villa and Tottenham in the race for Champions League qualification. While the FA Cup still offers hope of silverware, United have been leapfrogged by Newcastle and are looking nervously over their shoulder at the likes of West Ham, Newcastle and even Chelsea who all of a sudden are just six points behind them with two games in hand.

With Sir Jim Ratcliffe and the Old Trafford hierarchy turning their attention towards the future, it seems sensible that the Dutch coach is too. The remainder of the campaign will be spent analysing what to salvage from this season’s wreckage and the draw with Bournemouth showed there are glimmers of hope. There were gaping holes in the United midfield, but Kobbie Mainoo comfortably upstaged his midfield partner Casemiro as he skated across the lime green pitch, receiving the ball under pressure here, turning away from trouble there. A Gen Z Michael Carrick. An emblem of innocence amid the remorse.

Ten Hag deserves credit for using United’s injury crisis to the team’s benefit by providing an opportunity to young players. With Marcus Rashford passed fit for the game, it meant that eight members of the United squad were products of the club’s youth system. There was also a place for 18-year-old forward Ethan Wheatley who took his place on the bench for the first time following his hat trick in the youth team’s 9-1 win over Liverpool Under-18 side last week.

“We will keep fighting with the players who are available,” ten Hag said. “And you see there is high potential, but also young players.Yeah, they make mistakes and if they have to perform every Premier League [game] and they proved they can compete with the best teams on the highest level. They proved. But now they have to do it consistently and that is always the next step for young players.”

Bournemouth, who are motivated by their quest to surpass their previous highest points total in the division (46), were made to pay for their profligacy in the first 45 minutes. United were presented with the opportunity to draw level in a fittingly bizarre fashion when Adam Smith inexplicably moved his arm out toward a deflected Mainoo shot. Fernandes stepped up to the spot to score his 51st Premier League goal and bring United level for the second time.

Bournemouth thought they had the chance to snatch all three points in stoppage time when referee Tony Harrington awarded a penalty after Ryan Christie collided with Willy Kambwala, but VAR Jarred Gillett deemed that the foul was made outside the box in what was a very tight call.

The evidence of United’s regression under ten Hag is unarguable. After 32 games last season, they were 13 points adrift from then-Premier League leaders Arsenal and were considered to be closing the gap to the best sides in the division. At the same point this season, however, United are 23 points behind the league leaders having watched from a distance as the best sides in Europe went toe-to-toe in midweek.

It is easy to have sympathy for ten Hag, who is behaving like anyone who knows their job is at risk would. He is caught between trying to be seen as doing the right thing — bringing Harry Maguire back from exile after United’s shaky start to the season — and doing what you believe in: blooding the likes of Mainoo and Rasmus Højlund. It is no surprise the team has looked at odds with itself and lacking in cohesive principles.

However, circumstances may well work in ten Hag’s favour. The managerial merry-go-round in Europe is currently spinning at warp speed with vacancies at Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Liverpool likely to prove more tempting for top coaches than the United hot seat.

“Going into the game we were confident,” Solanke, who admitted he is aiming for a spot in the England squad, told Sky Sports. “We knew it would be a tough game but we told ourselves we had beat them once this season so knew we could do it again. We created a lot of chances and should’ve been two or three up but we didn’t take the chances and the second half was a tight game.”

After another seismic week behind the scenes at Old Trafford where football director John Murtough stepped down from his post, the leadership structure above ten Hag’s head is slowly taking shape.

The boardroom recruitment work, primarily overseen by Sir Dave Brailsford, has identified incoming CEO Omar Berrada and sporting director Dan Ashworth (whose arrival from Newcastle is still being negotiated) as among those best placed to decide ten Hag’s fate. With Champions League qualification an increasingly remote prospect, it seems possible that the fightback to secure a point against Bournemouth will be regarded as simply a marginal gain for the Dutch coach.