Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag is confident that the Reds can return to the high standards that have been set this season, despite Sunday’s setback at Newcastle.
United endured a difficult afternoon on Tyneside over the weekend, but ahead of the club’s next outing against Brentford on Wednesday evening, the boss reiterated he trusts his side to put things right.
Ten Hag explained that in the second part of his pre-match press conference, which you can now read in full below…
Erik, you said in January – I think to Voetbal International – that the club had signed too many average players in recent years. Obviously Wout [Weghorst] then came in, he’s got two goals in 19 games. Gary Neville said he shouldn’t be at Manchester United so with Anthony Martial now back, has the time come where he now has to come out of the team?
“I also saw another comment from Gary Neville where he was conflicted on the performance of Wout and [he said] that with Wout, we are quite successful. I think that’s the evidence. That’s what I can say about that. I am happy with him because he’s [Weghorst] doing a great job for this team.”
With the midfield, if Manchester City, for example, have a couple of injuries, they’ve got natural replacements to come in… is that the level you’re striving to get the squad to in the summer? In that if Casemiro or Eriksen come out, you’ve got a natural replacement to go in for them…
“But I think we knew before the start of the season, we discussed it in this place [press conferences] also many times, we need outstanding players at Manchester United, [that’s] clear, and if you have injuries, you need replacements and you need competition. Especially when you want to compete in four competitions, you need that to be successful.”
Six weeks ago, you were eight points clear of Newcastle and it looked like the top four was guaranteed for you then. Now, you’re down to fifth so do you have to remind the players of what’s at stake in the next 10 or 11 games you’ve got left?
“Of course. And you have to match certain standards. In the seasons, it doesn’t go only one way up, you will have fluctuations. But, you have to know why you are where you are and what brings that position. That was about determination, that was about passion, that was about desire. So, I have missed it. When you are a strong opponent who plays above the levels, and many teams play against Manchester United above their levels, then you get killed. We had that experience on Sunday.”
Do you think after that experience of winning the Carabao Cup, the players maybe switched off mentally and lost their focus after winning the trophy?
“I don’t think so but we had a tough programme. Now they have had their rest. It’s unacceptable and I don’t accept it. So we are now in the final stage of the season so you have to be mentally and physically fit and that’s the responsibility everyone in the team has to take, then stick together, stick to the plan no matter what.”
You kind of just half-answered that Erik, but Rio Ferdinand said he thought your players have downed tools, and have not made an effort since the Carabao Cup final. Do you think there’s any truth in that? Do you not think that’s a valid criticism from Rio?
“I don’t know exactly what you mean?”
Rio Ferdinand said that since you won the Carabao Cup, the players have downed tools, meaning they stopped trying, stopped putting in effort. Do you think that’s a fair criticism or not?
“I think we also, after [winning] the Carabao Cup, we won many games. We beat, in a really good performance, Betis. We beat West Ham United. Also, after the Carabao Cup, we had good performances.”
Both you and Luke Shaw agreed after the Newcastle game that Newcastle wanted it more. When you played Brentford at the start of the season it was the infamous 4-0 defeat, so how can it be that six or seven months later the team is still not trying, or trying as much as the opposition? Surely, that’s the base level for your team…
“I agree, we drop. We return to old habits. But also I know that there is fluctuations because people are not robots. But we have to act as robots, we have to act as machines, we can expect and we have to expect and we have to demand from our players that they match the standards. So, when we are not doing [that], we are disappointed because that’s our job.”
You know these players quite well now it’s fair to say, you’ve had the best part of a season with them, do you believe as a group they can act like robots? Be machines? Do it week in, week out for you? Have they got it in them?
“Yeah, because we have shown in so many games we did it. So I have a very strong belief, a very strong confidence, a very strong passion. The togetherness we had, we have shown it in many games and in big games. We have shown we can win big games. But you have to do it every time because that is the demand on the top players. That is the expectation at Manchester United, [the expectation] that the Manchester United fans have from our team, from our players. So, they have to do it.”
Anthony Martial is one of the best finishers at the club, you’ve not been able to pick him for most of the season. How frustrating is that for you as a manager, that you haven’t been able to rely on him?
“[In the] first place, it’s frustrating for himself. He is the player who is most in the gym, he doesn’t want to be there, he wants to be on the pitch. But of course, our team, in the first place, it’s frustrating, secondly, [it is] for the manager as well because when your best players are available, you have more chance of winning games.”
And if he is fully fit, and in your team and firing on all cylinders, how much of an improvement do you think he would make to your team?
“I only have to refer to Liverpool [at] home, Man City [at] home when he was available. He makes a difference, but we spoke before, that’s the same for Casemiro, for Eriksen, who are very important players. But, when they are not available, we still have to win.”
Just to follow on, obviously you’ve made great strides since August, but eight months on, you’re still having to talk about passion, about hunger. Is there a concern that there are certain players here who will never get that message?
“When they can’t get this, then they are in the wrong place.”
And going back to that [Brentford] game and the day after it, how important was the process when you got them in that day and made them run 14 kilometres? How important what you’ve achieved since then was the aftermath of that Brentford defeat?
“I think it was one we used. Sunday, we returned to bad habits and you get hammered. The players notice [that]. They talk with each other about it because they are also aware, this is not the standard for a Manchester United team.”
The goal-kicks against Brentford in the 4-0 defeat were a feature of their game. For Newcastle, it felt a trigger for them to press and harry, but it seems like something you’ve worked on as well in terms of the short passing out – Martinez to De Gea. How do you view that situation at the moment? Is that something you’ve been working on in training?
“We work all day about [it]. I think we played very well in that part at Newcastle, the first stage of the game, the second phase of the game, we were really poor in the final third of the game but we get the balls with the wingers, we get the balls with our [number] tens, but from that moment on we were very poor on Sunday. But in the first stage of the game I think we were very good. I think we played many times under the pressure of Newcastle [out from the back] and we get the ball with our tens.”
Just following on, you’ve not been afraid to make big decisions, some you’ve been ruthless with. Do you think at the end of this summer, you’re going to have to be very, very ruthless again in terms of what you do with this squad when you look at certain performances – Brentford, Liverpool, City, Newcastle, where there’s an issue running through those games? You’ve obviously made some big improvements, some big strides, but do you think you are going to have to be very, very ruthless this summer with what you do?
“Let’s be fair, I know what football is, we’re talking in the emotion after one defeat we now had. But we are in the right position. This squad is doing that and you can talk about deficits but every squad has deficits. I trust my players to give good performances and get the best results. They have shown it so many times. Arsenal at home, Liverpool at home, City at home, but also Barcelona twice, so they can do it. So, don’t talk about what’s coming after and severe decisions. I trust my players and they deserve it because they give the performances and we are in the right position. But now the season starts and we had a really bad start of the season when you go to Newcastle, and as a team you deliver this, [it’s] far below our standards and the performance we can expect.”