Under-fire Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag does not fear for his job as his absentee-hit, confidence-sapped side prepare to travel to bitter rivals Liverpool.
The afterglow of a promising first season in the dugout has long since disappeared, with the Dutchman’s position under intense scrutiny after a wretched start to his second campaign.
United’s Carabao Cup defence ended last month and Tuesday’s lifeless 1-0 home loss to Bayern Munich in their Champions League group finale saw them eliminated from Europe with a whimper.
Now comes the unenviable task of travelling to Premier League leaders Liverpool, who start the weekend 10 points ahead of their misfiring sixth-placed rivals.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) December 15, 2023
United’s 12 defeats in 24 matches in all competitions has heaped the pressure on Ten Hag, but he is not worried about the axe ahead of the trip to Anfield.
“No, there’s no concern because I’m here to win and I have to make the team play better,” the Dutchman said.
“If you play good, even then I say good is not good enough, and now we are inconsistent, so I have to work on that the team is going to play for longer periods in a high level.”
The fact United are in a state of flux, as the wait for confirmation of Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s partial takeover rumbles on, has perhaps given Ten Hag more time than others would have got.
Asked what gives him the confidence he retains the backing of everyone at the club, the United boss said: “I feel that (backing), yeah, and they tell it to me.
“That’s fine and that’s OK, but I’m focusing on the process. I’m focusing on making this team play better. I am focusing on make the individuals better and that’s my concern.
“That is all I’m doing – focusing on the right thing and that is the team.”
United’s team need a lot of attention judging by this season’s meek performances, with last weekend’s humiliating 3-0 home loss to Bournemouth the nadir.
In truth, the Red Devils have not been the same since losing 7-0 at Anfield in March, just a week after ending their six-year wait for a trophy by lifting the Carabao Cup.
It was a record defeat in this fixture and some United fans fear the season could reach a new low on Sunday.
“I think everyone knows, I think everyone is highly motivated when you go to Anfield,” Ten Hag said.
“It’s a great place to go and you know it’s going to be tough, and I think what every top footballer wants is to have that challenge, so you have to look forward.
“Last year of course we take that in our memory, but you have to also take the benefit from it, learn from it and on Sunday we can prove that.”
Skipper Bruno Fernandes faced particular criticism after March’s Anfield annihilation and will miss the return after picking up a needless fifth booking of the season for dissent.
The United captain’s absence compounds an eye-watering list of absentees, including injured Lisandro Martinez, Casemiro, Tyrell Malacia and Amad Diallo.
Mason Mount, Christian Eriksen and Victor Lindelof have also been laid low recently, while Jadon Sancho remains banished from the first team.
Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw went off through injury against Bayern and the former has joined the lengthy list of absentees, which Anthony Martial remains on through illness.
But Ten Hag provided a positive update on Shaw after his hamstring complaint and says Marcus Rashford is back from the illness that ruled him out of Tuesday’s loss.
“Harry will not be available for the coming games but we don’t think it is a long-term issue,” the United boss, who would not reveal his captain for Anfield, said.
“Luke Shaw trained this morning, so we think he’s available for Sunday. Marcus Rashford is available, Martial not.”