Erik ten Hag tells Man Utd players to keep their heads in Istanbul cauldron

Manager Erik ten Hag of Manchester United speaks during a press conference at Carrington Training Ground on November 28, 2023, in Manchester, England

Manchester United’s Champions League campaign to date has, in the main, been a case study in losing control – mentally and emotionally, individually and collectively – so it was no surprise to hear Erik ten Hag emphasising the need for cool heads.

Aside from knowing they will be out of the competition if they lose, pretty much the only thing United can be certain of at Rams Park is a hostile reaction from Galatasaray’s fanatical supporters, which is why Ten Hag wants his players to “make it your game” and not play the occasion.

The message was simple: do not give Galatasaray’s players anything to feed off or, for that matter, referee José María Sánchez Martínez any needless invitation to blow his whistle or reach for his pocket given the pressure the home fans will doubtless be applying on the Spanish official.

“You have to stay calm in your head and don’t get too emotional and control that emotion,” Ten Hag said on Tuesday before United left for Istanbul, boosted by the news that his top scorer, Rasmus Hojlund, and winger Antony are available again following injury.

“Don’t give them anything – the referee as well – don’t give them a moment they can take. You have to stay away from such moments and you have to make it your game. It is not that important how the opponent is playing, it is about how you are playing. We will make a good plan and then the players … they have to decide.”

Ten Hag can only hope they make better decisions than they have managed in Europe so far this season. Five wins from six in the Premier League has been a big positive, as has the return from injury of defender Luke Shaw and midfielder Kobbie Mainoo, who impressed in Sunday’s 3-0 win at Everton when Alejandro Garnacho’s stunning bicycle kick after just three minutes quietened a raucous home crowd.

Manchester United's Alejandro Garnacho celebrates after scoring their side's first goal of the game with an overhead kick during the Premier League match at Goodison Park, Liverpool
Alejandro Garnacho's stunner against Everton helped United to maintain their good league form - PA/Peter Byrne

What Ten Hag would give for a start like that in another sulphurous atmosphere on Wednesday night but, at the very least, he needs his players to demonstrate more composure and better game management in difficult moments or crucial stages of the match.

United have conceded penalties in each of their four Champions League matches this season and twice had a player sent off, Casemiro in the chaotic 3-2 home defeat by Galatasaray and Marcus Rashford in the 4-3 loss away to Copenhagen last time out, which means the England striker misses this game through suspension.

With a raft of sudden implosions and a troublesome record on the road in the Champions League since Sir Alex Ferguson retired a decade ago, it is not hard to understand why their hopes of reaching the knockout stages hang in the balance.

Victory before their final Group A match against Bayern at Old Trafford next month would greatly enhance their hopes of progressing. But they may struggle to achieve that if they keep encouraging opponents as they have done.

Harry Maguire of Manchester United looks dejected after FC Copenhagen score a fourth goal during the UEFA Champions League match between F.C. Copenhagen and Manchester United
United have been on the end of some chaotic defeats in Europe this season - Getty Images/James Gill

“No, we don’t have fear,” Ten Hag said, but it has not always looked that way and it was interesting to hear Ismael Garcia Gomez, Galatasaray’s assistant coach, explain how they preyed on United’s insecurities by pressing aggressively at Old Trafford – a trick they will probably look to repeat.

“They are struggling sometimes when they face a team with that high intensity in the pressing,” he said. “Especially in the first half when things aren’t going well, we could tell even by video that the players were getting a bit nervous. It’s what I saw at Old Trafford, too.”

Okan Buruk, the Galatasaray coach, may well feel he has United’s number. Last month’s win was not his first against the club, having also masterminded Istanbul Basaksehir’s 2-1 victory over United three years earlier.

Ten Hag’s challenge will be to knit a 90-minute performance together. They were good against Copenhagen for 41 minutes until Rashford got sent off, after which they conceded twice in first-half stoppage time, and then managed the second period well with 10 men only to collapse in the space of four minutes late in the game. Against Galatasaray, they twice conceded quickly after going 1-0 and then 2-1 up and then again after Mauro Icardi had given them a let-off by missing a penalty.

It was a similar story in Munich: the better team before a blunder from Andre Onana gifted Bayern a goal, after which United conceded again moments later.

United have lost 12 and won just eight of their past 26 Champions League away matches in the competition proper. It is not a record that augurs well as they prepare to enter the Galatasaray bear pit but Ten Hag will hope this is a night when his players stand tall and reveal the best of themselves.