Erik ten Hag fielded a 14th different centre-back combination against Crystal Palace on Monday night. Is it any surprise his Manchester United side have struggled for consistency?

Erik ten Hag hasn’t had much to smile about this season. He has had plenty of opportunity to master the bewildered, beleaguered manager look in the Manchester United dugout.

Monday night was just the latest of those opportunities, and arguably the best yet.

Or worst, depending on who you are.

United were resoundingly beaten 4-0 by Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. It was a Palace side closer to full strength than they have been for much of Oliver Glasner’s reign, with the Austrian this week afforded the luxury of having both Michael Olise and Eberechi Eze available.

Palace are a much better team with both of their star creators available. After this thumping, they have won five out of seven this season with both playing (71.4%), compared to six of 29 without at least one of them (20.7%).

So, United might always have been facing a big challenge.

It certainly didn’t help that Ten Hag was forced into fielding a 14th different centre-back combination for the season, with 36-year-old Jonny Evans partnering central midfielder Casemiro at the heart of the United defence.

manchester united centre-back partnerships 2023-24

Only Luton, who have had their own terrible luck with injuries at centre-back, have used more different centre-back combinations in the Premier League this season (17). Rob Edwards’ side are, of course, on the brink of an immediate return to the Championship.

Arsenal, by way of comparison, have used just three different combinations all season.

The first thing that needs saying is that Ten Hag has endured an awful run of luck with the fitness of his centre-backs. Evans was only signed on a free on the eve of the new season last summer as a back-up, an additional defender who would provide cover for the first-teamers and experience and leadership for the younger members of the squad to learn from. Few could have foreseen him playing as much as he has. Only Harry Maguire (18) and Raphaël Varane (16) have started more Premier League games at centre-back for United this season than Evans (13).

Varane and Evans have started more games together than any other United centre-back combination in 2023-24, and even they have done so just six times. Maguire and Varane, Varane and Lisandro Martínez, and Maguire and Evans have all started four games together each.

Varane and Martínez arguably make up United’s first-choice pairing, so for Ten Hag to have only been able to call on them together in 11% of their Premier League games is a pretty stark indicator of the challenge he has faced this season.

manchester united squad depth

While nobody could have predicted Evans’ role before the start of the season, fewer still would have expected Willy Kambwala, Luke Shaw and Casemiro to make eight starts between them at the heart of United’s defence.

For many, though, Ten Hag is running out of excuses. United have now lost 13 league games this season – their most in a season since 1989-90. Their 18 losses in all competitions make this their worst campaign in that regard since 1977-78.

They have also conceded 81 goals in all competitions, which is their highest in a season since 1976-77. It hasn’t been an easy watch for United fans, and Monday night was about as bad as it has been all campaign. Conceding four goals to Crystal Palace, with or without Eze and Olise, has to be considered unacceptable for a team that would have had aspirations to qualify for the Champions League this season.

Injuries are certainly a mitigating factor, but there is a reasonable conversation to be had about why exactly United have had so many injuries at centre-back. For example, have United recruited poorly there, with too many injury-prone players signed, or is there a problem with the players’ training schedules and workloads? Many of the injuries they’ve suffered have been suffered up in training, after all.

There are also structural problems in the team that are surely primarily the fault of the manager. As has been well documented, United have been far too open this season, and far too easy for opponents to break down. Only rock-bottom Sheffield United (17.9) have allowed their opponents more shots per game in the Premier League this season than Ten Hag’s side (17.7).

On Monday night, the problem was quite how exposed the centre-backs were. Stand-in defender Casemiro can hardly be deemed blameless given just how out of his depth and lacking in motivation he has looked at times lately, but there were far too many opportunities for Palace’s talented attackers to drive at him with the ball.

The Brazilian was dribbled past on seven occasions over the course of the 90 minutes at Selhurst Park, which is the joint most by any player in a Premier League game this season, and three more than any other centre-back in a single match.

Generally speaking, central defenders are both protected by the midfielders in front of them and very good in one-on-one situations. Aston Villa’s Ezri Konsa has been dribbled past three times in 33 games this season, for example. Virgil van Dijk just twice in 34 games.

If you are playing with someone like Casemiro, who is clearly not what he used to be when it comes to individual duels, in central defence, then more needs to be done to protect those players from the likes of Olise and Eze.

Casemiro also made some terrible decisions when it came to his positioning. As the last line of defence, he shouldn’t have gone charging out of defence like he did as often as he did.

As he wandered out of defence and lunged in rashly on Olise just 11 minutes into the game, 21-year-old skipped past him with ease and powered on towards goal to open the scoring.

It wasn’t just Casemiro being exposed, though. Later in the first half, Jean-Philippe Mateta, a decade younger than Evans, found himself isolated with the defender, went past him like he wasn’t there, and fired home to double Palace’s lead.

crystal palace 4-0 manchester united stats

The problems both run deep and are deeply concerning. There’s a great deal to fix, but with the (very, very) slim possibility that United could still end this season with a trophy if they are to pull off an improbable upset against rivals Manchester City at Wembley later this month, Ten Hag can’t throw the towel in just yet.

There is a chance that Varane, Martínez, Lindelöf and Shaw – all of whom missed out at Palace due to injury – are in contention to play in the FA Cup final.

That breeds yet more uncertainty, which makes planning for the final even more difficult for Ten Hag, but it is also a situation that we – and he – should at least come to expect from his United team.

The situation at centre-back encapsulates the chaos at Manchester United at this moment in time.

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