Manchester United are used to breaking records in the Champions League but the current crop will be concerned they have conceded more goals than any United team in group stage history, showing how far they are from competing at the top level.
Kerem Akturkoglu’s vicious equaliser for Galatasaray on Wednesday was the 14th goal to pass André Onana in five European matches, leaving United bottom of the four-team table and in danger of an early exit. It was the only time in Istanbul when the goalkeeper could not be blamed for letting the ball past him, a worry in itself.
Onana made mistakes for Hakim Ziyech’s two goals as he let Galatasaray back into the game, adding to his errors at Bayern Munich in September. The Cameroonian’s flaws are costly but there is a wider problem for United: they are unable to bring control when needed.
Although Onana should have done better with the free-kicks from Ziyech, the fact these were given away in dangerous areas should be questioned. As Erik ten Hag was at pains to discuss after the match, he knows the winger well and what he can do from dead-ball situations. Limiting Ziyech’s chance to be effective was important but cheap fouls were given up.
Before each error United were two goals ahead but they opened the door for Galatasaray. This is not the first time they have been architects of their own downfall. In Munich, they twice reduced the deficit to one but within five minutes allowed Bayern to score and end any chance of securing a point.
Copenhagen was not much different. United earned another two-goal lead but gave it away before half-time, conceding two quick goals, including a penalty. Despite being down to 10 men, United worked extremely hard to move ahead but another two goals in four minutes brought defeat.
Ten Hag says this is a team in development, one learning from every experience, but they are repeating the same mistakes when travelling in Europe. Domestically, they are still trying to find form despite five wins in their past six matches. In the Premier League they have won eight games – all against teams below them. Whenever they have faced opponents in the top six they have fallen well short. Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester City have defeated United to offer an indication of where they sit in the Premier League echelons.
In the next two and a half weeks United face Newcastle, Chelsea and Liverpool to test their character and whether they are learning, starting at St James’ Park on Saturday night. They must then beat Bayern at Old Trafford a week on Tuesday to stand a chance of progressing in the Champions League.
The performance at Galatasaray was United’s best in Europe this season but still flawed. Bruno Fernandes provided a moment of individual genius for his goal and Alejandro Garnacho and Scott McTominay finished off fine team moves, but this has been a rarity. United have what is needed to be successful but are letting themselves down with the equally important defending.
Stability is lacking and they consistently give up possession to allow counterattacks, something they cannot afford in the absence of midfielders with the positional sense to stop them. Opponents are aware of United’s flaws and how out to exploit them, making it a concern that Ten Hag needs to address. The most composed the United midfield has looked all season was in the win over Everton last Sunday, when the 18-year-old Kobbie Mainoo made his full Premier League debut, and he could become more important in the coming months.
There were short spells against Galatasaray when United were in control but it turned into a basketball match, going from end to end, and they were unable to take the sting out of the fixture. United are too open. Casemiro is supposed to help in this regard and is injured but even when fit he has looked laboured and isolated.
“You see the progress in this team,” Ten Hag said in Istanbul. “I take many positives from this game. Some mistakes [but] we played like I want my team to play. It was enjoyable to watch that: proactive, dynamic, brave and we scored great goals.”
As vocational courses go for players, a night at Rams Park is an incredible learning opportunity because they are unlikely to face somewhere as intimidating. Whenever and wherever their next European trip is, these players should be able to cope with whatever the fans – literally or metaphorically – throw at them. It could, though, be a long wait if they finish bottom of the group.
The British philosopher Herbert Spencer said: “The great aim of education is not knowledge but action.” It is an ideal United need to live by because there is no evidence they are learning from their mistakes.