Manchester United's worst season? What happened to The Red Devils?

Manchester United's catastrophic 2023/24 season: a deep dive into the on-field and off-field factors behind their downfall
Manchester United v Arsenal FC - Premier League
Manchester United v Arsenal FC - Premier League / Michael Regan/GettyImages

The 2023/24 season began with hope for Manchester United, fresh off a Carabao Cup win and a promising debut under Erik ten Hag. However, it quickly spiraled into what many consider one of their worst campaigns in recent history. Early exits from competitions, humiliating losses, and a dismal league position have left fans and pundits alike asking: What happened to the Red Devils?

Statistical Evidence of Failure

While 2023/24 has been a dismal season for Manchester United, it is crucial to remember their previous low point in 2021/22. That year, they mustered only 16 wins, 10 draws, and 12 losses, accumulating a mere 58 points. While the current season may seem worse in terms of losses (14), the overall points tally (54) and win percentage (42.11%) suggest a marginal improvement. However, defensively, the current team appears more vulnerable, having already conceded 56 goals compared to 57 in the entirety of the 2021/22 season.

Both seasons saw the Red Devils underperform their expected goals, scoring 52 goals compared to 57 in 2021/22. Regardless, neither campaign is one for the history books, solidifying 2023/24 as one of the most challenging periods in Manchester United's recent history.

Tactical and Strategic Missteps

Erik ten Hag's tactics initially hailed for their structure and possession-based approach, have come under scrutiny this season. Critics argue that his system has become too rigid, failing to adapt to different opponents and the ever-changing dynamics of matches. Injuries have disrupted the team's rhythm, but Ten Hag's inability to find effective solutions has worsened the problem.

Questionable player selection and formations have further compounded the issues. The constant shuffling of players and systems has created a sense of instability, leaving the team without a clear identity. Defensive frailties have been a constant thorn in United's side, with individual errors and collective breakdowns leading to far too many goals conceded. Meanwhile, the attack has often lacked creativity and cutting edge, struggling to break down well-organized defenses.

Off-Field Factors and Psychological Impact

The lingering effects of the Glazer ownership saga and reports of dressing room unrest have undoubtedly taken a toll on player morale and focus. A string of defeats can be psychologically devastating, deteriorating confidence and creating a sense of helplessness within the squad. The weight of expectations at a club like Manchester United is huge, and the constant media scrutiny and fan disappointment only amplify the pressure on the players.

The vicious cycle of poor results, negative media coverage, and fan discontent further deepens the psychological burden, making it increasingly difficult for the team to break free from their slump. This toxic atmosphere can permeate throughout the club, affecting not only the players but also the coaching staff and even the boardroom.

Erik Ten Hag's Unwanted Records

The 2023/24 season has been a catalog of unwanted firsts for Erik ten Hag, etching his name into the club's history for all the wrong reasons.

  • Champions League Woes: United finished bottom of their Champions League group for the first time since 2006, failing to keep a clean sheet in five out of six group games, a new low for the club. They also set a new record for an English team by conceding 15 goals in the group stage.
  • Defensive Calamities:  Ten Hag's team holds the unwanted record of conceding the most goals (14) in the first five Champions League group games for an English side. Additionally, they became the first team to give away four penalties in their initial four Champions League matches.
  • Domestic Disappointments: Under Ten Hag, United lost 13 games before Christmas for the first time since 1930 and endured a four-game scoreless streak, a feat not seen since 1992. They also suffered their first home loss to Bournemouth, who also managed to score three goals and keep a clean sheet at Old Trafford for the first time in their history.
  • Rival Humiliations: Ten Hag became the first post-war Manchester United manager to concede 20 goals against Manchester City and Liverpool in his first six encounters. He also oversaw United's first back-to-back league losses against Newcastle since 1972, and their first three-game losing streak against the Magpies since 1922.
  • Crystal Palace 4-0 Manchester United: Manchester United have not conceded more than 80 goals in all competitions since 1978. They conceded their 81st goal after being defeated by Crystal Palace F.C. with a score of 4-0. Manchester United has lost four different away matches eight times in its league history. In three of them, the coach was Ten Hag.
  • Premiere League Standing: Manchester United's worst finish in the last 10 years was seventh under Moyes. But right now, they are in the eighth place in the league.

These are just a few of the negative records set under Ten Hag's leadership. They paint a stark picture of a team in disarray, struggling to find its footing on both domestic and European stages.

A Turning Point or a Sign of Deeper Troubles?

The 2023/24 season has been a harsh reality check for Manchester United, marked by statistical underperformance, tactical missteps, off-field turmoil, and a series of missed opportunities. This dismal campaign stands as one of the worst in the club's recent history, raising serious questions about the team's direction and Erik ten Hag's leadership. The road to recovery will require deep introspection, tactical adjustments, and potentially significant personnel changes. As the Red Devils look to the future, the question remains: Will this season be a catalyst for change or a sign of even greater decline?