Fernandes' role is safe, Man United manager Ten Hag says
MANCHESTER, England (AP) — As the dust settles on Manchester United's humiliating 7-0 loss to Liverpool, manager Erik ten Hag is hoping he and his team have learned something from the setback.
The Dutchman wants an instant reaction when his team hosts Real Betis in the Europa League on Thursday and his starting lineup could offer an insight into which players he felt were most culpable for the collapse at Anfield.
Bruno Fernandes' position as stand-in captain, however, appears to be safe.
“He’s playing a brilliant season. He’s had a really important role in why we’re in the position where we are because he’s giving energy to the team,” Ten Hag said Wednesday.
Fernandes has worn the captain's armband for the majority of the season in the absence of Harry Maguire, who has lost his regular starting place. But the Portugal international's petulant performance against Liverpool, when he was frequently complaining to the referee, has led to plenty of criticism. Some have questioned whether he is captain material.
Former United captain Gary Neville, now a television commentator, labeled Fernandes an “embarrassment.”
“I think some of his behaviour in the second half has been a disgrace,” Neville said.
United denied that Fernandes had asked to be substituted during the game.
“He’s pointing and coaching players, he’s an inspirator for the whole team. But no one is perfect, everyone has his mistakes,” Ten Hag said. “Everyone has to learn. I have to learn and he will learn as well because he’s intelligent.
"I’m really happy to have Bruno Fernandes in the team and I’m really happy, if Harry is not on the pitch, that he’s our captain.”
Fernandes has started all but one Premier League game this season and has rediscovered some of his best form under Ten Hag. A week before the loss to Liverpool, he led United to its first trophy in six years when captaining the team to a 2-0 victory over Newcastle in the League Cup final.
He lifted the trophy with Maguire at Wembley Stadium.
“He’s been a good leader for us even when he’s not been captain, which is always a good sign,” United teammate Marcus Rashford said. "He’s helped other players become better leaders and the reality is we can’t be a well-organized team with just one leader being the captain. He’s done a lot for us in terms of bringing his leadership skills in, and that was from the moment he arrived.
“Sometimes you want to win so bad you end up doing things that are a little bit out of character. But I, 100% I support Bruno. We are behind him.”
The loss effectively ended United's Premier League title challenge, with the team 14 points behind leader Arsenal. It also equaled the biggest defeat in the club's history, and was the third rout this season after losing to Brentford 4-0 and Manchester City 6-3.
Ten Hag described it as a “huge setback,” adding there were lessons “that can help us for the future.”
“That’s the positive, how negative it is. We were really below average, especially mentally-wise,” Ten Hag said. “If we want to be a big team and we want to win trophies then you have to act differently.”
Despite conceding six goals in the second half, Rashford denied the team gave up against Liverpool.
“That’s nonsense,” Rashford said. “We were unorganized, yes. Communication was bad, yes. That’s why we conceded the goals. But it comes down to the fact that I believe everyone was trying to get back into the game that much, we came away from the team’s principles in and out of possession.”
The Premier League may be out of reach, but United can still win three trophies with the team in contention for the Europa League and FA Cup.
Against Betis, United has a chance to get the season back on track.
“I’m happy and grateful we have another game quickly," Rashford said, "because we have an opportunity to take a step forward from the last game and put it behind us.”
James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson
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James Robson, The Associated Press