Manchester United held an embarrassing 3-0 loss at home to Bournemouth and had two players on their bench started, it could have been a different story.
Across time, football will talk about the fairytale of a valiant Bournemouth side picking up their first-ever win at a stadium almost seven times bigger than their own against English football’s fallen titans. But had Raphaël Varane and Kobbie Mainoo been included from the start, it may have been entirely different.
Before his injury, Varane had been United’s best player this season, yet has seen almost no minutes since. Mainoo put on arguably the best performance by a Manchester United midfielder this season at Goodison Park in a 3-0 win two weeks ago but received zero minutes against the Cherries.
Ten Hag’s men held 69% of the ball against their opponents yet were consistently sloppy with it and made poor decisions. Having Mainoo, a player already so polished at such a young age, on the pitch would have likely smoothed out United’s possession and caused Bournemouth more problems.
United also struggled to defend transitions, allowing Bournemouth to advance up the field too easily after winning possession, and all three goals were conceded in the six-yard box, two in the air.
Varane is United’s best defender without question, a master of delaying transitions and one of the best box defenders in world football. In his entire time at United, he has won almost 80% of the duels he has contested in the air. On top of all this, he provides real leadership that United would have benefitted from.
Given United’s issues on Saturday, it’s difficult to justify them being completely left out of the game.
Varane’s inclusion would have allowed Luke Shaw to play in his true position, as a left-back, and Mainoo would have provided United with more on-ball presence in the centre of the pitch – a lot of the play against Iraola’s side was concentrated out wide – to balance out their possession more.
Even bringing them on at half-time would have given United, the dominant side in the first half, a stronger grip on the game and perhaps fans would have seen the side equalise, which would likely have led to them going on to win it. To leave them out entirely, whilst making just four subs, was truly baffling, especially when considering Jonny Evans was subbed on at 3-0 – hardly a difference-making sub.
Ten Hag might like someone more comfortable on their left side for buildup angles, a questionable argument against Varane given his ambipedal nature, and Mainoo is after all an 18-year-old whose development must be managed properly.
But at the same time, they are clearly players who make Manchester United better and are better than those playing in the positions ahead of them. If your system does not create room for your better players, then something is inherently wrong with it.
In general, it is confusing to many Manchester United fans how Ten Hag is so comfortable with deviating from his principles when it comes to how his side approach games but so stubborn with them when it comes to selecting players. Maybe there are things fans are not seeing, but right now, his selection decisions are costing his side games and will possibly be costing him his job soon.
Another exclusion that has been perplexing is Hannibal Mejbri, who impressed hugely in his few appearances earlier in the season for United yet has seen next to no game time since. Against Bournemouth, he did not even make the bench, and it is not the first time this has happened. It is simply not fair for a player who not only has performed well when given the opportunity but also brings a lot of valuable qualities that would improve Manchester United’s play.
With a win-or-go-home (potentially a win and go home anyway) game against a wounded Bayern Munich – they themselves lost 5-1 in the Bundesliga to Eintracht Frankfurt and will be looking for a heavy response – on Wednesday, and English football’s biggest grudge match away at Anfield on Sunday, United need to make some major changes.
Captain Bruno Fernandes is suspended for the game at Anfield after being booked for dissent against Bournemouth, so midfield change will be enforced in that game, but Bayern Munich is where United need to start. Reinstate your backline’s leader in Raphaël Varane, play Kobbie Mainoo to help deal with Bayern Munich’s press, and start giving Hannibal Mejbri the squad minutes that he deserves. Otherwise, Ten Hag will most likely pay the price with his job.
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