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Football

07th Mar 2023

Erik ten Hag must not escape blame for stubborn selection he refuses to admit is not working

Patrick McCarry

erik ten hag

The poor lad was chasing shadows at Anfield.

Erik ten Hag was keen for Cody Gakpo last summer and in January. The man who he was forced to settle for just is not cutting it.

There was a nice moment, amid the League Cup final celebrations, for Wout Weghorst as he sank to his haunches and took in the joyous scenes where the Manchester United supporters were, in Wembley.

The Dutch forward was plugging away at Besiktas, on loan from Burnley, when United came calling and offered the opportunity of a life-time. Ten Hag may have wanted Cody Gakpo but the Glazer family have the club up for sale and were not splashing out on any permanent deals in the January transfer window.

So it went that Liverpool opted to pull the trigger on Gakpo and wait until the summer to try sort out their centre midfield issues. United were left shopping in the loan market and Weghorst, along with Marcel Sabitzer and Jack Butland, was a stop-gap.

Many of us expected the Netherlands international, who scored two late goals against Argentina in the World Cup, to be a League Cup and Europa League starter but a bench option in the Premier League. Instead, he has started all 12 of his United appearances, ran his hump off and rarely threatened in front of goal.

erik ten hagWout Weghorst of Manchester United lines up at Wembley Stadium. (Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images)

Erik ten Hag not backing down on Wout Weghorst

In 2020/21, Manchester United had a great target man in Edinson Cavani. Whenever the Uruguayan played, he made defences drop back deeper, he was good at harrying and holding the ball up, and excellent at bringing teammates into play while being a goalscoring threat.

Cavani was asked to stay on at United for 2021/22 then almost flipped aside when Cristiano Ronaldo was signed. He responded with some petulance and his fitness and reliability dropped off. Still, when he played he was effective. He just did not play enough in that final season.

Ronaldo as the man leading the line scored a lot of crucial goals but a lot of United’s attacking play revolved around serving his needs. Erik ten Hag looked to have decided, early on, that Ronaldo was not what this United team needed. The pair had a fractious relationship and Ronaldo was gone before the World Cup kicked off.

Not moving Ronaldo on before the summer transfer window meant United missed out on Gakpo and went into the season with the ageing Portuguese, the frequently crocked Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford as forwards. Rashford is having his best ever goal-scoring return but Alex Ferguson stressed, after the League Cup final win, that the 25-year-old is not the striker United need right now.

To Ferguson, Rashford is at his best playing on the left side of the United attack, taking on opponents and cutting inside to score. Ten Hag would side with that opinion but he opted to start Rashford as United’s sole striker against Liverpool. That was not the worst choice in the world – Rashford had United’s two best scoring chances in their defeat – but he stubbornly started Weghorst and played him in a deep No.10 role that was more like a No.8.

Jamie Carragher pointed out, on Monday Night Football, that Weghorst was tasked with trying to stay on top of Fabinho and pressing him for space. The 30-year-old is a willing runner but he was dragged all over Anfield without getting many touches of the ball. For the fourth time in his seven Premier League starts, the big man failed to have a single effort on goal.

Liverpool have shown, all season, that they are vulnerable to teams that play with pace and who play balls over the top of their defence or who have attackers directly running at them. Martial is injured (again) but United had Jadon Sancho, Alejandro Garnacho and Anthony Elanga all on the bench.

Starting Sancho or Garnacho ahead of Weghorst would have made a lot more sense. If Erik Ten Hag wanted someone as a No.10, why not deploy Bruno Fernandes there and start either Scott McTominay or, preferably, Sabitzer?

Instead we had the sight of Weghorst flogging about like those poor Barca academy players experiencing their first rondo session with the big boys.

The signing of Weghorst is not working and he is unlikely to stay beyond his loan spell, this season. United may have new owners by the summer and they are being linked with Harry Kane and Victor Osimhen.

Many United supporters will be watching closely, on Thursday then Sunday, when Erik ten Hag names his next two starting XIs (for Real Betis and Southampton).

There will be some players that started at Anfield that we will not see getting much minutes over the following weeks. Weghorst may be willing runner and harrier but he is not providing enough in attack (one goal, two assists).

Ten Hag has proved stubborn on plenty of occasions, this season, but surely he must realise Weghorst is a squad player, at best.

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