For more than a month, Erik ten Hag has been pointing to January as the moment Manchester United’s season can get back on track.
The United manager has had to navigate an injury-ravaged campaign. Whether it is Rasmus Hojlund, Mason Mount, Luke Shaw, Casemiro or Lisandro Martinez, among others, being sidelined, the Dutchman has seldom been able to call on a fit and healthy squad. It is one of the reasons why they find themselves languishing in sixth place in the Premier League, 11 points off the top four.
But at Newport County on Sunday, where they avoided humiliation to win 4-2 after letting a two-goal lead slip, Ten Hag welcomed back Casemiro, Martinez and Shaw to the starting XI.
Shaw had been absent since before Christmas, with his season being hampered by a hamstring injury. Casemiro limped off against Newcastle on November 1 and only returned to training earlier this month.
Martinez, who is key to Ten Hag’s side playing out from the back due to his calm nature and quality on the ball, has arguably been the biggest loss. He has missed more than three months of action after a recurrence of a foot injury he suffered last season.
“So often we have to change the team,” Ten Hag said in December. “You don’t get the routines. We know football is about solid performance and consistency and we know we have to make a step there, but I’m sure when we have more players available in the key positions we will get more consistency.”
Even in the face of some alarming performances and results since the beginning of the season, there has always been an understanding that Ten Hag has had a limited squad to choose from. It has been one of his go-to defences, and you can’t blame him for that.
But the return of several players means his margin for error has shrunk. Starting with their Premier League game against Wolves on Thursday, United almost have to be faultless to prove that Ten Hag was right to call for patience.
“For the first time since I was the manager, we can pick a team from the squad that is probably the strongest,” Ten Hag said after the FA Cup victory on Sunday. It was a more upbeat tone than the remarks he made not long over a month ago.
But if they continue to stutter, as they nearly did away to Newport with a strong team, where does that leave Ten Hag in terms of proving to INEOS, the United’s new minority shareholders, that he can deliver positive results on the pitch and is the right person to take the club forward?
Before Newport turned it into a competitive fixture and made the visitors work harder than they would have expected to for the win, it was proving to be a good afternoon for United’s returning trio.
There were errant passes and signs of rustiness, which you would expect from players as they work towards match fitness. Yet their experience was also crucial to United getting over the disappointment of conceding twice and grinding out a win.
Whether the plan was for them all to play over 80 minutes, or if the desire was for the game to be home and dry long before then to take them off earlier, the intensity of the fixture is likely to work in their favour.
According to WhoScored, Shaw won all five of his attempted tackles and finished the game with a pass completion rate of 82 per cent. It was his shot in the second half that struck the post before being tapped in by Antony.
Nobody attempted more passes than Martinez (74) — 88 per cent were successful — which highlights his importance when it comes to United playing out from the back. Casemiro, featuring alongside Kobbie Mainoo — who scored his first senior goal for the club on Sunday — was a presence in midfield.
The Brazilian made a fast start to the match, but his stamina waned the longer it went on. Ten Hag turned to Scott McTominay to inject some energy into the team during the final exchanges.
“We will see,” Ten Hag said when asked how important their return to fitness is in the context of United’s season, “but I believe it is very important.”
“First, they have to step up to 100 per cent match fitness,” the United manager added. “This game helped, but we know the Premier League intensity is higher, so they are forced to (reach) higher levels.”
Mason Mount is still to come back from a calf injury that has kept him sidelined since November, with United saying he returned to training on the grass at the end of December. Andre Onana is expected to be back in the starting XI to play Wolves after Cameroon were knocked out of AFCON.
The treatment room at Carrington is beginning to empty, and that will no doubt help Ten Hag sleep at night, but he will be all too aware that the pressure to start delivering results is now going to intensify.
(Top photo: Dan Mullan/Getty Images)