Manchester United’s Anfield reality check might have been painful but it could end up benefiting Erik ten Hag in the long run as he aims to move his Old Trafford revolution to its next phase.

“Unacceptable” was how Ten Hag described his side’s performance on Sunday. On Monday, there were more words, delivered privately but emphatically as the United players were made to sit through the lowlights of a historic defeat in a painful video debrief at Carrington.

There was no time to brood over the defeat for Ten Hag, who arrived at around 7am, just a few hours after the dust had settled at Anfield. His players followed a couple of hours later and while the training session might have been in the diary, the analysis session and harsh words were hastily assembled. No one had reason to complain.

In August, a 4-0 defeat at Brentford spelled the beginning of the end for a few United careers, not least that of Cristiano Ronaldo. This loss was arguably more excruciating – “unprofessional” was what Ten Hag called it – but there are unlikely to be any snap judgements made on the back of it.

Bruno Fernandes, for one, is likely to continue as interim skipper despite harsh criticism over a performance that plumbed the depths.

He may have escaped an FA charge for an ill-disciplined shove on assistant referee Adam Nunn but he couldn’t evade the criticism of a raft of club legends lining up to brand his performance “embarrassing” and a “disgrace” as he flailed through a desperate second half in which his team seemed devoid of leadership.

Fernandes’s recent form has been good enough to insulate him from being stripped of the captain’s armband, but long-term Ten Hag will have noted the manner of his display and it is likely to strengthen his belief that the squad needs more leaders. If club captain Harry Maguire leaves in the summer, Fernandes’s Anfield antics mean he should not be a shoo-in to take over on a permanent basis.

United’s Carabao Cup triumph and fine recent form might have re-established them as a force but Ten Hag has been counselling behind-the-scenes that there is still much work to do to turn the Red Devils into contenders for Europe’s biggest prizes.

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Some of that is about continuing to work on the fundamentals that he expects of his players, but the harder part is persuading United’s transfer committee to act in a much slicker, more nimble way in the summer market.

At Anfield, Ten Hag started with January loan signing Wout Weghorst up front, who is far from the standard required.
Instead United need to push themselves into the elite forward market. Top of their hitlist is Napoli’s Victor Osimhen, who has scored 21 goals this season. Tottenham’s Harry Kane, a deal that would be tricky to pull off, is another option.

As reported by i last week, United have been a constant presence at the Stadio Olimpico in recent months to monitor Roma and England striker Tammy Abraham. The former Chelsea man would offer a more economical option with plenty of room for growth.

Whatever happens, United and Ten Hag may look back at Sunday as the moment they realised there was so much more to do.

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