Erik ten Hag has placed his faith in his Manchester United players to respond to setbacks as he made it clear Champions League qualification is non-negotiable.
The manager watched in horror as Luke Shaw conceded a last-gasp penalty for handball at Brighton on Thursday night; Alexis Mac Allister converted to bring an end to United’s five-game unbeaten run in the Premier League, which featured four wins.
Ten Hag cut an agitated figure as the tackles flew in at the Amex Stadium, claiming that Brighton were guilty of tactical fouls to stop United counterattacks, some of them heavy. He also raged when Shaw was penalised for a challenge on Julio Enciso, saying the defender had merely stood his ground, which led to the corner that produced the decisive penalty.
Brighton had their own grievances with the officials, arguing that they ought to have had two previous penalties following tackles on Kaoru Mitoma. They wanted a second yellow card for Casemiro after he fouled Mac Allister, which did not come, while there was also a flashpoint involving Antony. The United winger, seething when he heard no whistle after going down, rushed over to challenge Mac Allister and simply kicked him. He escaped with a booking.
It was a bad-tempered game, an overspill perhaps of the FA Cup semi-final between the teams from the Sunday before last, which United won on penalties. However, Ten Hag was calm as he looked ahead to Sunday’s trip to West Ham, knowing his players have almost always followed defeat with victory. The only exception was at the start of the season after the opening weekend defeat at home to Brighton. In their next game, United slumped 4-0 at Brentford.
“We have every time in the season when we had a defeat … then we bounced back,” Ten Hag said. “There is no time to stay in this … we move on to the game against West Ham. The players have to take responsibility and I count on them. We have everything in our hands so we have to focus on our performance. I trust my players. I am quite confident about that.”
United sit fourth, four points clear of fifth-placed Liverpool and with a game in hand. They are eight points ahead of Brighton in sixth, who have played one game fewer than them. United’s run-in is relatively kind and it would take some stumble for them to be overhauled in the race for fourth, but a defeat at West Ham coupled with Liverpool and Brighton continuing to win would make things more nervy.
“We need to be there, in the Champions League,” Ten Hag said. “We want to be there because we want to challenge the best teams in the world so we do everything in our power to get that done.”
It was put to Ten Hag that as the club remained in the grip of takeover uncertainty, qualification for the premier European competition would be especially important for his summer transfer budget. “I think it is always vital that we have to be in the Champions League,” he said. “It is a battle because many clubs in the Premier League are competing for it and they have the power to fight for that as well.”
What bothered Ten Hag at Brighton was his team’s failure to beat Jason Steele; the goalkeeper was named over the public-address system as the man of the match before the stoppage-time twist. Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Bruno Fernandes were each denied by him when when well-placed – Martial had been one-on-one, while Antony also wasted a gilt-edged opportunity when clean through.
Ten Hag, who confirmed Alejandro Garnacho could return to the squad at West Ham after a two-month ankle injury lay-off, was asked about Antony’s temperament. The 23-year-old was involved in a confrontation with Lewis Dunk after his foul on Mac Allister.
“His passion is a strength,” Ten Hag said. “Of course, until a certain level you have to control it. You need passion and desire to win your games and win battles in the game. It is very strong with him and he is very ambitious. Don’t go over the top, stay focused on your game and what the game needs. If he does that, he is a great player. I think his improvement is quite obvious and clear.” – Guardian