Manchester United have struggled in the Champions League in recent years
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Over the last few weeks, in what has been a pressurised period, the Manchester United squad have noted a shift in training. Erik ten Hag has been doing a lot of fitness work. Some players feel this has been more of a focus than tactical work.
Critics and opposition analysts might well say that’s obvious, given that even FC Copenhagen dominated the ball for long periods of that Champions League-saving result at Old Trafford. One of the themes of the season has been how United just haven’t paid anything close to Ten Hag’s supposed tactical ideal. Many of the matches have actually been reminiscent of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s time, especially in how individual inspiration has brought wins out of unconvincing collective displays.
That’s also why their fitness work may be important. Durability has been one of the qualities keeping United going, and may well prevent them from emulating Solskjaer in another way. It may stop them from going out in the group stage again.
That isn’t just something that should be put at Solskjaer’s feet, though, nor is it the sole motivation for Wednesday’s game in the Danish capital. United are in some way playing for their Champions League.
The club’s dismal recent record in the world’s elite competition is as telling a measure as anything of their recent malaise. They may have never dropped out of the top five of the Deloitte Football Money League in terms of revenue, but they barely trouble the Champions League last eight. They haven’t even been to the last four since 2011, which was also the last time they reached the final.
In the time since, United have qualified for the competition eight times and gone out at the group stage three times. That is more than they’ve reached the quarter-finals, which has been just twice.
Manchester United have suffered plenty of Champions League woe in recent years
Among the clubs to finish above them in their groups since then are Benfica, Basel, PSV Eindhoven, Wolfsburg, Leipzig and Paris Saint-Germain.
One of a few ambitions for Copenhagen here is to become a moderate name on a fairly moderate list.
They’re well aware they can claim a potentially decisive result, as the 1-0 defeat at Old Trafford showed. They know they should have claimed at least a draw, only for Andre Onana to stop Jordan Larsson’s penalty in what could yet prove to be a hinge moment.
For the moment, the feeling in Copenhagen is one of huge excitement. It can be sensed in all of their pre-match talk, and how they consider themselves favourites.
Ten Hag was diplomatic there. “They are entitled to feel like they are favourites,” the United coach said, before playing all that down. “We’ll go into the game with confidence and aiming to win as well.”
That latter point may have raised more eyebrows than Copenhagen’s proclamation since United just do not look like a confident side right now. They instead seem to be playing with the knowledge that one thing going wrong can lead to everything going wrong.
Andre Onana’s dramatic penalty save against Copenhagen secured victory for United at Old Trafford
A relatively fortuitous late 1-0 win at Fulham doesn’t wave away what happened against Manchester City and Newcastle United.
A second victory in a row, especially one so important for their Champions League future, would admittedly help a bit more.
That sums up where United are right now. It’s like they’re constantly just trying to get through it, to get to the next step to give themselves, the injury list and their manager some breathing space. Bigger ideas about tactical philosophies can wait.
Ten Hag referenced this when he discussed how to improve performance. “By getting more to our best 11 and getting routines in the team. So far, we’ve had to change a lot. The midfield balance is also not there. I’m sure once we get there, we’ll play better.”
This is one match when they can’t afford to wait until then. Otherwise, it will be more of the same in the Champions League, but making that record worse. Ten Hag badly needs to avoid defeat.
Physical form can be decisive there, since United do just have higher quality than Copenhagen. That might make it another of those where superior execution proves decisive late on.
It shouldn’t really be coming down to games like this, though, when the financial gap between the two clubs is so vast. You just wouldn’t guess it from United’s record.
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