Ten Hag, Man United with more uncertainty than ever before

Dalen Cuff is joined on ESPN FC by Steve Nicol and Luis Miguel Echegaray to discuss the possibility that Erik ten Hag is the best option to remain in charge of Manchester United, considering other available managers. (2:19)

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MANCHESTER, England — “Our spirit is not in question and neither is our ability,” wrote Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag in his programme notes ahead of Sheffield United’s visit to Old Trafford on Wednesday.

“But we have repeatedly made things harder for ourselves this season than they need to be.”

Manchester United finally gave their under-fire coach some respite with a 4-2 win over the Premier League’s bottom side, but they didn’t half make life difficult for themselves. Twice Sheffield United led and twice the travelling fans in the corner of the stadium sang “How s— must you be, we’re winning away.”

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But twice United equalised before Bruno Fernandes and Rasmus Højlund both scored in the final 10 minutes of the game to allow Ten Hag to breathe a little more easily. If he had hair, he would have pulled it out throughout this bewildering season. United’s first league win for six weeks keeps alive their faint hopes of finishing in the top four and qualifying for the Champions League while for Ten Hag, it keeps alive his hopes of staying in the job next season.

“The team showed resilience and it is not easy when you are losing the game against a compact team, as Sheffield United was,” said Ten Hag. “We outplayed them, we were calm, didn’t let them run and we created a lot of chances.

“We can’t keep making such mistakes, and the top level if you want to achieve your targets, if you want to win trophies, then you have to stop this process. We have to keep the focus, you can’t allow these mistakes. Because you make your life easier when you don’t make mistakes.”

United’s current state was probably best summed up by the commentator on the club’s in-house television channel, MUTV, who said during their coverage that “teams don’t fear Manchester United anymore.” Sheffield United are having a miserable season, but if Coventry City from the division below can come back from 3-0 down to get within a tight VAR call of winning an FA Cup semifinal, they can certainly find cracks in Ten Hag’s team. And they did.

Ten Hag has enough on his plate with 10 senior players on the injured list and new owners to impress without his available players gifting the opposition goals, but that was exactly what André Onana did. The Cameroon goalkeeper played a pass to Diogo Dalot without looking and Jayden Bogle nipped in to make sure his next act was to pick the ball out of the net.

Manchester United manager Erik Ten Hag continues to feel under pressure about his future even after their 4-2 win over Sheffield United. (Photo by Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)

Maguire equalised before half-time with a deft header, but United weren’t done putting their manager through the wringer. Ben Brereton Díaz put Sheffield United back in front and the cameras panned to new technical director Jason Wilcox deep in conversation in the director’s box with Sir Dave Brailsford.

It will be down to Wilcox and Brailsford — along with new CEO Omar Berrada and incoming sporting director Dan Ashworth — to decide whether Ten Hag stays or goes this summer and a home defeat to the worst team in the league would have had the feeling of another nail in the Dutchman’s coffin.

For now, he has Fernandes to thank that his head is still above water. The United captain first converted a penalty to make it 2-2 and then picked up the ball 20 yards from goal to smash in his second of the night. For the first time, United were in front and it was Fernandes again who helped make the game safe with a cross for Hojlund to score his first goal since February.

Fernandes was a doubt before the game because of a hand injury picked up against Coventry on Sunday, but it takes a lot for the Portugal midfielder to miss matches and Ten Hag will be thankful he was able to play through the pain. It’s now eight goals in his last eight games.

“He is in very good form,” said Ten Hag. “I think we put him in the right position, he finds the right spots. When he is in that position, he makes the right decisions. He can create a lot, score a goal, assist, key actions. So we are very happy with his performance.

“He shows his leadership. But also with his energy, in his transition both ways, it is very important. He tries to encourage the team. He is doing very well and we are very pleased with his performance and with his attitude.”

Nine months into the season, it’s unlikely United are going to change their habit of living dangerously now. Five more league games and an FA Cup final against Manchester City offer the chance to end a disappointing season on a positive note, but with Ten Hag’s team there is never any certainty.

There’s no certainty, either, about Ten Hag’s future and that won’t change until United’s new owners offer some clarity one way or the other. Until then, he can expect more tense moments on the touchline.

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