It’s less than a year since Manchester United beat Newcastle at Wembley in the EFL Cup final to bring home the first trophy of the Erik ten Hag era.
The victory was supposed to provide the platform for the Dutchman to lead the Red Devils into a new era of glory, just as the likes of Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola have used the EFL Cup in the past with Chelsea and Manchester City, respectively.
That fixture once again comes around on Wednesday evening, this time in the fourth round of the same competition. However, last season’s success arguably feels more like a false dawn now than it ever has before thanks to Man Utd’s absolute 0-3 dismantling at the hands of derby rivals Manchester City — who also beat them in last season’s FA Cup final — on home soil, leaving them eighth in the Premier League table having lost half of their opening 10 games.
Man City can rip apart literally every team on planet football on any given day and in truth, Man Utd could have been any other poor, helpless outfit on Sunday. But given pride and rivalry at stake, the way United never landed a glove on Guardiola’s men will hurt supporters more than anything else.
After the match, Man Utd legend and Sky Sports commentator Gary Neville laid into United in his own outspoken way, giving particular criticism to the levels of petulance and immaturity shown by the likes of Marcus Rashford, Anthony, and captain Bruno Fernandes.
“The last 10 minutes, I hated what I saw in that last 10 minutes on that football pitch. Marcus Rashford, to be fair, is a fantastic player, but he looks like he’s sulking on the way off. Antony is shaking his head on the bench,” Neville said on his podcast with Peter Drury, adding: “Bruno [Fernandes] is the captain, he’s walking around and you know what he’s going to do in the last ten minutes, it’s almost like you can read it like a book. He’s going to get booked, he’s going to whinge, kick someone – it’s all for show.”
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Speaking to Match of the Day after the full-time whistle, Ten Hag admitted he and his squad were ‘annoyed’ by their performance on Sunday.
“Of course, we are down,” the former Ajax boss said. “We played a good game in the first half. We will be disappointed and annoyed today, but tomorrow we will be there. We will have energy and then we will prepare that game.”
The question on the lips of most United fans at this stage is can Ten Hag channel that annoyance into a response from his players to carry them back into Champions League and major trophy contention?
That all starts against Newcastle at Old Trafford on Wednesday. The fixture is well-timed in that it may well show just how far Newcastle — who have taken results from the likes of AC Milan and PSG in the Champions League this season, as well as knocking out Man City in the previous round of this competition — have come, while shining an even harsher spotlight on Man Utd’s regression.
“In the last few years, we have been comparing United to how far they are behind City, but my worry at this moment is about all the other teams that have gone past them at this present moment in time,” former Man Utd captain Roy Keane told Sky Sports on Sunday.
“You look at Spurs, Liverpool have obviously recovered, look where Newcastle are going, Arsenal have got stronger and United are certainly slipping behind the pack.”
A first home loss to Newcastle — who are dealing with a number of fitness issues right now and may well be depleted on Wednesday — since December 2013 would leave Man Utd supporters in no doubt of where their club stands in the English football ecosystem, while perhaps also leaving Ten Hag walking on very thin ice.
Now more than ever, he needs his players to turn annoyance and petulance into a response.