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Liverpool demolition a true test of Man United’s progress under Ten Hag

The widespread exclamations that Manchester United were back to being a serious force at the top of English soccer were made to look somewhat premature as Liverpool scored seven goals against Erik Ten Hag’s team. While United’s progress over the season as a whole is undeniable, their collapse at Anfield was reminiscent of calamities of recent past seasons.

Reports of Ten Hag’s fury after the match have emerged in the days since, with the Dutch coach known for being an authoritative presence in the Old Trafford dressing room. The former Ajax boss has high standards and won’t accept another performance like the one produced by United against their biggest rivals.

More will be learned of the damage caused by the 7-0 defeat to Liverpool in the coming days and weeks. Last season, Manchester United found themselves in an inescapable spiral that dragged down everyone at the club including interim manager Ralf Rangnick who couldn’t instill any sort of belief in his players.

Signings like Casemiro, Lisandro Martinez and Raphael Varane have helped give United a stronger mindset, but it’s apparent that the collective remain a generally fragile group of players. The astonishing collapse against Liverpool reminded everyone of that, with the body language of Bruno Fernandes and Luke Shaw particularly concerning.

“It is quite obvious, it was unprofessional,” said Ten Hag, addressing accusations his team gave up. “First half, I think we were the better team – we created the better chances and had two one-on-ones with the goalie. Before half-time we made one organisational mistake and conceded a goal. We were in the game. It really surprised me after half-time, we gave the game [away] so quickly.”

United are fortunate to have four matches in quick succession before the international break with games against Real Betis on Thursday and Southampton on Sunday before the second leg against Real Betis and an FA Cup quarter-final against Fulham. They will have the opportunity to quickly wash away the stain of what happened on Merseyside.

On the other hand, if the malaise that developed at Anfield starts to seep into other performances Ten Hag will have a serious problem on his hands. That’s where all the good work he has done this season could unravel. Manchester United find themselves at a critical juncture of their season and in the early stages of Ten Hag’s tenure.

In binary terms, Sunday’s loss to Liverpool was just one defeat. Manchester United are only three points worse off in the Premier League table than they would have hoped for. They are still well on course to finish in the top four and qualify for next season’s Champions League and already have a trophy in the bag after winning the Carabao Cup.

It’s important for United to take a broader look at their development over the course of the full 2022/23 campaign and also to recall the mess Ten Hag inherited last summer. Many predicted the Dutchman would struggle to carry Manchester United into top four contention so quickly, but he has surpassed expectations even after such a catastrophic defeat to Liverpool.

There’s a chance next season will be more competitive at the top end of the Premier League table. Arsenal will likely still be strong, but Manchester City might have made more progress in fully integrating Erling Haaland by then, while Liverpool is currently turning the corner into a new era under Jurgen Klopp.

Tottenham Hotspur could have a new manager with Antonio Conte increasingly expected to leave the North London club at the end of the current season. Then there’s Newcastle United who will probably spend again in the transfer market this summer to accelerate their progress following the Saudi Arabian takeover of the club in 2021.

This could make life more difficult for Manchester United who want to become genuine Premier League title challengers under Ten Hag. This is a team that still requires a world-class number nine to take the next step with more midfield depth also needed. It’s possible they could replace David de Gea as their first-choice goalkeeper too.

However, the biggest construction job on Ten Hag’s hands at this specific moment in time relates to building up Manchester United’s confidence after their demolition by Liverpool. There have been signs of mental growth at Old Trafford this season, but now United must prove this all over again. 

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