Confirmation of team news an hour before kick-off became almost a formality and Ten Hag was reluctant to rotate. Any debate was usually centred around who should start at right-back and whether Wout Weghorst deserved to keep his place up front.
Marcus Rashford and Antony were nailed out wide, Casemiro would anchor Christian Eriksen and Bruno Fernandes while Luke Shaw would almost always play to the left of Lisandro Martinez and Raphael Varane. It was a simpler time.
United were not without their injury problems and spent the latter weeks of last season with neither first-choice centre-back – both were injured in the Europa League quarter-final first-leg draw at home to Sevilla in April. But for the most part, that area of the pitch was set in stone and the pair developed an excellent relationship.
Things have not been so straightforward this season, specifically at the back. Martinez suffered a recurrence of that foot injury picked up in April and is expected to be out until after Christmas. Varane, 31 next spring, has struggled for both form and fitness. Victor Lindelof has been in and out while Jonny Evans and Harry Maguire fill the gaps.
“What we have to work on is a stable starting XI, at least with 12 or 13 players,” Ten Hag explained on Friday when asked how he plans to improve performances. “Then the routines will be better and more chances will be coming.
“Getting more to starting XI, 12, 13 players, you can rotate so you get routines in the team. In this season so far, left-back and right-forward position, we have to change a lot and then you swap the team, you don&apost get the routines in, also the midfield balance is not there. But I&aposm sure once we get there we will play better, we will improve our game, the performance will be better and form there on.”
Consistency is what Ten Hag needs at centre-back but it&aposs not something he will get any time soon. The long-term absence of Martinez has left the Dutchman without a first-choice option on the left but there are issues beyond that.
Varane&aposs constant injury issues mean he can no longer be relied upon over the course of the season, particularly during a period in which midweek matches are relentless. Evans has remained fit all season but at 35 presents with the same issue of not being able to play two or three times per week.
Lindelof only missed the 1-0 win over Fulham last weekend due to illness and returned to the squad against FC Copenhagen, but the Swede&aposs versatility at full-back leaves him vulnerable to being moved out wide.
Maguire has been the ever-present in recent weeks – a resurgence few expected – but alternates sides based on his defensive partner. Even the consistent starter is inconsistent in his role.