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Man Utd boss Erik ten Hag facing Erling Haaland and Kevin De Bruyne dilemma ahead of Manchester derby

Man Utd struggled to cope with Fulham and now face Man City at a time when Erling Haaland and Kevin De Bruyne are finding top form and Erik ten Hag is auditioning to keep his job; watch the Manchester derby live on Sky Sports Premier League from 3pm; kick-off 3.30pm

How do Manchester United stop Haaland and De Bruyne?
Image: How do Manchester United stop Erling Haaland and Kevin De Bruyne?

Within 12 seconds of Manchester United's defeat to Fulham there was a gaping chasm between Erik ten Hag's midfield and defence. Andreas Pereira had free rein on his return to Old Trafford.

Jamie Carragher's dismantling of Ten Hag's set up on Monday Night Football was alarming. Perhaps more alarming is the prospect of this space being filled by Kevin De Bruyne on Sunday when Manchester City play United at the Etihad - live on Sky Sports.

United's midfield area was gutted inside 20 seconds
Image: Fulham's Andreas Pereira, in the middle of the box, was left all alone almost straight from kick-off
Kobbie Mainoo was caught between two roles
Image: Kobbie Mainoo was caught between two roles, highlighting the confusion at Man Utd

The City captain returned from injury to set up Erling Haaland for four goals in Tuesday's 6-2 win at Luton in the FA Cup last 16. Haaland scored five goals with his seven shots.

"It's coming, we're coming. We are ready to attack," Haaland told ITV after the game. A frightening warning which, reflective of United's poor season, is almost certainly aimed at City's title rivals.

Arsenal have laid claim to being the form team in recent weeks, scoring four against Newcastle, five against Burnley and six against West Ham after defeating Liverpool convincingly.

Jurgen Klopp's side have overcome every challenge thrown at them in the league to remain leaders despite an injury crisis. The momentum of last Sunday's Carabao Cup win must not be underestimated, either.

City, on an 18-game unbeaten run in all competitions, had been going about their business quietly. Now, it seems, Haaland has signalled they are ready to turn it on once again for the run-in.

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What better occasion than the Manchester derby for City to make their own statement of intent?

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Is Ten Hag doing enough to convince Ratcliffe?

Sir Jim Ratcliffe meets Erik ten Hag at Manchester United's training ground (getty, uploaded Feb 2024)
Image: Sir Jim Ratcliffe meets Erik ten Hag at Manchester United's training ground

Ten Hag faces this daunting prospect at a time when his position is under increasing scrutiny. Sir Jim Ratcliffe has made clear the manager is in no immediate danger, although once the new sporting structure is assembled attention will undoubtedly turn to the dugout.

The final three months of the season have become an audition for his own job. It is not easy pitching a brighter future to your new boss while, essentially, treading water.

United's "odd bunch", as Gary Neville likes to call them, are hardly making a good case for Ten Hag right now. Getting away with wins over Wolves, Aston Villa and Luton has papered over the cracks.

This is a group that looks more confused than convinced by their manager. "They defend like no team I've ever seen before," said Carragher on Monday Night Football. "They like to press high with a deep block. It's impossible."

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Watch Jamie Carragher and Gael Clichy explain why Man Utd's set up was so wrong against Fulham

Ten Hag was supposed to be the first United manager that could, eventually, go toe-to-toe with Pep Guardiola.

Instead, his attempt to move beyond the pragmatism that set him in good stead last season has seen United regress this time around, with hopes of Champions League qualification now fading.

It is likely on Sunday that United's approach will resemble that of Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in past Manchester derbies.

Man Utd haven't been able to build on last season's success
Image: Man Utd have been unable to build on last season's success

Ten Hag does not seem to trust his team enough yet to take the game to City. This was made abundantly clear when United parked the bus at Anfield in December.

Do not be fooled, this is no criticism of Ten Hag's decision. In fact, it paid off and quite nearly secured United a win against Liverpool, although that would have been a touch fortunate. A similar outcome feels like the best United can hope for on Sunday.

Injuries have, of course, played their part. Although, it must be pointed out that these problems have been present since the opening game of the season when they scraped a win over Wolves.

It is hardly the presentation of progress Ten Hag would want to show Ratcliffe. This is the man with the grand plan of knocking United's noisy neighbours off their perch after all.

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A look at all the key statistics ahead of Sunday's huge Manchester derby at the Etihad Stadium, live on Sky Sports.

The Haaland-De Bruyne dilemma

Manchester City's Erling Haaland, centre, celebrates with his teammates after scoring his side's opening goal during the FA Cup 5th round soccer match between Luton Town and Manchester City at the Kenilworth Road Stadium in Luton, England, Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
Image: De Bruyne and Haaland were in top form at Luton ahead of the derby

Haaland and De Bruyne's proclivity for the prolific poses a serious problem to Ten Hag, whose team are perennially stretched. They could be 2-0 up at Luton or 12 seconds into a home game against Fulham, the same issues persist.

These are ideal conditions for Haaland. He thrives on space and De Bruyne often tends to find him. The duo have combined for 18 goals in all competitions since their first game - six more than any other Premier League partnership in that time.

United are also conceding more balls into the box from crosses than any other Premier League team this season. Music to the ears of De Bruyne, who has 11 assists in 11 games this season.

In addition, United have faced 100 shots in their last five league games against Fulham, Luton, Aston Villa, West Ham and Wolves. At the rate City are going, given this many shots on goal, they are expected to score at least two goals on Sunday.

Man Utd have faced at least 16 shots on 14 occasions
Image: Ten Hag's side have faced 20 shots or more in the Premier League 12 times - more than double that of Klopp and Guardiola combined since they came to England

These numbers suggest a low block would be the safest approach. For a manager always one defeat from a crisis, Ten Hag cannot afford to gift Haaland and De Bruyne the space they have afforded others. His team will not keep getting away with it.

It does, however, raise an uncomfortable reality for Ten Hag. Nineteen months in, a new part-owner looking over your shoulder, and still your ideas have not taken hold. His vision, as set out early in his tenure, feels some way off.

"In all the games, we want to dominate, to dictate and at least control the game," Ten Hag said in October 2022. "That is our approach and that will not change."

United appear to be chasing more games than they dominate. In fact, their average possession is at its lowest in the Premier League since records began. City, meanwhile, top this metric.

Ratcliffe is in no hurry to achieve his lofty ambitions, but Ten Hag's slow progress will give him food for thought amid reports of admiration for Roberto De Zerbi. There are also murmurs that the INEOS chief is "not sold' on the present incumbent.

The mood music at Old Trafford has largely been positive since Ratcliffe's arrival, Fulham defeat aside. Another footballing "lesson" at the Etihad could change that.

Watch the Manchester derby live on Sky Sports Premier League from 3pm; kick-off 3.30pm.

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