Bruno Fernandes did not like the sentiment and the answer was predictably defiant. Moments earlier, with another Manchester United inquest under way, Erik ten Hag had been asked whether the problems at the club were to do with a lengthy injury list or the mentality. “Both,” he replied.
It is never a good look when a manager questions the fight and determination of his players but Ten Hag could not hide the dismay after Wednesday night’s 4-3 Champions League defeat at Bayern Munich. Now it was put to Fernandes, the United captain. Was there an issue with the mentality? Because there were numerous moments when United looked so soft and easy to play through. Was it the time for each player to look deep inside himself?
“Everyone has to do their own job and look at themselves first,” Fernandes replied. “That’s what I do as a player – not as a captain, as a person. I think everyone does that and it wasn’t the case that not everyone was good, doing their best for the team or fighting for the result. I think everyone did that.”
Fernandes went on to talk about how the momentum was against United; Bayern was their fourth defeat in six matches this season and everybody knows that they could have lost the other two – they smashed and grabbed the win against Wolves in their opening game and gave Nottingham Forest a two-goal start before battling back for 3-2.
“No one would expect us to come to Bayern and score three goals … to fight for the result [until the end],” Fernandes continued. “I think the team did that. It wasn’t enough but we’re not playing against some bad team. We were playing one of the best teams in the world. Obviously it’s not the best moment for us but we will get through this and we will get the results back.”
Stirring words, and it was good to see Fernandes front up to the media when the easy option would have been to carry on walking to the team bus. The problem was that they came too late; the evidence on the pitch had already damned United and driven Ten Hag to distraction.
It was a seven-goal thriller at the Allianz Arena only in the loosest sense because United were unable to get something from a promising first 20 minutes or so and then sleepwalked to defeat after the concession of the opening goal on 28 minutes.
They dealt badly with that setback, conceding again quickly, and what was also galling was how, after their goals for 2-1 and 3-2 towards the end, they allowed Bayern to restore their two-goal cushion almost immediately. It pointed to a lack of emotional control – as well as shortcomings on the tactical front.
Rasmus Højlund’s goal for 2-1 – his first for United – was a tonic. Yet 60 seconds later, when he was robbed in possession by the irrepressible Jamal Musiala, it led to Bayern breaking with two on two. How could United be so open so quickly? Leroy Sané fed Musiala, who had sprinted forward to make an extra man, and his shot was deflected narrowly off target. It was from the corner that Bayern got the penalty for their third goal, converted by Harry Kane.
What most infuriated Ten Hag was the sloppiness on the first two concessions and it was easy to see why. The first was a horror show for André Onana, who seemed to dive over Sané’s tame shot, but it is gruesome to rewatch the buildup – as it will be for the players when they do so in the debrief, especially Christian Eriksen.
Marcus Rashford and the unconvincing Sergio Reguilón show Sané inside from the right and the Bayern winger’s touch appears heavy, setting up a 50-50 with Eriksen. Yet only one player looked like getting to the ball first and it was not Eriksen. He and Rashford then watch as Sané surges on to a lay-off from Kane before the shot and Onana’s misfortune.
On the second, it is shocking to see how easily Musiala turns and runs around Casemiro, with Eriksen unable to get across to challenge. Into the box, Musiala gets the better of Diogo Dalot, Victor Lindelöf is sucked over and Casemiro, too, chases towards the ball. Nobody spots Serge Gnabry, who has pulled into space for the cutback. When Gnabry finishes, Eriksen arrives belatedly.
Together with Fernandes, Eriksen pressed high and effectively during United’s bright start. But Eriksen’s defensive work further back was one of the many problems for Ten Hag and it was no surprise to see the manager withdraw him in his first substitution.
Ten Hag urgently needs to address the balance of the midfield and it will be interesting to see whether he uses the new signing Sofyan Amrabat – when he is fit – alongside Casemiro to give the team a more robust base. If so, how would he accommodate Fernandes and Mason Mount, who has also been missing with injury?
Casemiro remains in the firing line, despite his two late goals against Bayern and a few nice passes. He has been unable to dominate as he did for much of last season.
Fernandes spoke up strongly in defence of Onana, insisting that United won and lost as a team; no individual was to blame. But Onana’s performance was of a piece with that of the collective against Bayern and across the season so far – some good moments but outweighed by a lack of ruthlessness, the self-perpetuating doubt that something will go wrong at some point.
“The positive is that the spirit was there,” Fernandes said. “We tried. It wasn’t enough but at periods the team showed great spirit. We have to do it more often and for 90 minutes.”