It took a 13.8-kilometre running session for Erik ten Hag to fix Manchester United’s 2022-23 season.

Having watched United be out-thought and outfought by Brentford in their second league game under his management last August, Ten Hag cancelled a scheduled day off after a 4-0 away defeat to the Londoners and asked his players to pound out the distance — around eight and a half miles — that Brentford collectively had outrun them by during the match. Ten Hag joined in with the session, went out and signed Casemiro and Antony to shore up areas of weakness in the squad not long after, and then set about winning games.

After another two disappointing performances to begin their 2023-24 campaign, does he need to get his running shoes out again?

Ten Hag’s team have made an underwhelming start to a second straight season, initially frustrated (although eventually victorious) at home against a resilient Wolverhampton Wanderers side before suffering defeat at Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday. It was an odd outing in north London — a first-half performance that was far superior to their opening game of the season six days earlier, followed by a mini-collapse.

Yes, United have three more points compared to the same stage of last season, but their level of performance so far has raised concerns. What are the reasons behind this underwhelming football and how do they avoid another tailspin?

One theory has its roots in a pre-season itinerary that took United players to five countries in the space of 25 days to play eight fixtures. Following a defeat to Borussia Dortmund in Las Vegas that completed the U.S. leg of their summer globe-trotting, midfielder Christian Eriksen gave an interview to in-house channel MUTV explaining the difficulties of balancing preparations for a 10-month campaign across multiple competitions at home and abroad and servicing the club’s commercial interests.

Ten Hag’s face says it all watching the defeat to Spurs (Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)

“It’s been good (to travel to the US on tour) but there’s been a lot of games and too much travelling,” said Eriksen, who was not at his best in the friendlies.

“It’s feeling easier going into the games (with better fitness levels), we’re feeling more prepared. We expected a tough pre-season, but there’s probably been too much travelling around. Playing in different places has to happen and we’ve adapted but everyone is happy to go home.”

Physical and mental fatigue have been worries bedevilling the squad since their Carabao Cup final victory over Newcastle in February.

United played 62 games last season, with several of their important players totting up more than 3,500 minutes across all competitions. Factor in the unusual November-December placement of a mid-season World Cup due to the climate in host nation Qatar and many team members crucial to making Ten Hag’s style of football work may be feeling a little worse for wear.

There has been a notable lack of intensity across the two league fixtures, exacerbated by long-running personnel issues. Against Wolves, there were problems with the midfield, in the defeat to Spurs the soft underbelly that can be aggravated when the opposition press United came to the fore once more.

In both games, United lacked attacking thrust from wide areas, and with Anthony Martial’s fitness an ongoing issue and new signing Rasmus Hojlund recovering from the back complaint he brought with him to Old Trafford, Marcus Rashford toiled playing as the centre-forward.

Rashford’s effectiveness when used down the middle has been debated for years, but he is a diminished attacking threat when working centrally and a less efficient presser when out of possession. Although United have improved in chance creation under Ten Hag (the 14 first-half shots against Tottenham were their most away from home since October 2008), they remain unconvincing in front of goal.

Ten Hag has looked to alleviate some of these weaknesses by focusing on United’s strengths in transition and making them a more dangerous counter-attacking side. But that, in turn, brings a problem — their aggressive, man-marking pressing system can be manipulated if the opponents look to stretch the field as wide as possible.

Strained communications exacerbate any errors in United’s defensive shape when the opposition team play through the first round of pressure.

Ten Hag’s attempts to play new signing Mason Mount in an advanced role have expanded the gaps between Casemiro and the forward players. The Brazil midfielder has too much space to cover when United play a 4-1-4-1 formation, a problem not helped while he is lacking his usual sharpness. Casemiro has been dribbled past six times in the two games as he struggles to decide whether to delay an opponent’s attacking attempts or to fully engage and tackle early.

United’s system asks players to attack quickly and directly while aggressively defending from the front. They are overcommitting bodies ahead of the ball when attempting to score and not retreating properly when trying to stop the other team.

How does the manager correct these problems?

Another 13.8km run for already fatigued legs may worsen things, and financial fair play considerations mean the club have to sell players before they can bring in more new ones.

Some United fans are also questioning whether following Ten Hag’s lead over transfer targets is the best route for the club to take in this window. Five members of Saturday’s starting XI were signed by the Dutchman and the squad should now better resemble what he wants as we near the end of his third window. Yet it was Tottenham, in only the second competitive game of Ange Postecoglou’s tenure, who looked far better at executing their manager’s chosen style of play.

For Ten Hag, one nervy 1-0 win and a disappointing second half in a defeat should not cause panic.

“In the first half, we played really well. That’s a good Spurs side and we dominated the game in and out of possession. We caused them problems. But you need to score the first goal,” he said. “The meaning of the first goal is so important — we didn’t score it.”

The sensible reading would be to take proper stock of the side when club football resumes after the September international break, a point when Hojlund has, hopefully, returned to full fitness and United’s squad for at least the next four months has been finalised. But if this season is to be a success, the manager’s biggest gambles in the market will have to come off.

Andre Onana, who has faced 20 shots on his goal already, is looking like an improvement on David de Gea but Mount’s excursions as a ‘free eight’ have thrown off the balance of the midfield.

Either the front three ahead of the England international have to match his energy in trying to win the ball high up the field, or Ten Hag must ask Mount to relax and help protect Casemiro in central areas. The 31-year-old former Real Madrid stalwart will need to snap out of his early funk, and though Antony is unlikely to ever fully make good on his £86million ($109m) transfer fee, he will need to find a way to offer more than he currently does.

Too many of United’s attacking plans this season rely on Hojlund, a 20-year-old who is yet to kick a ball in the Premier League and made only 20 Serie A starts for previous club Atalanta.

The club have made big calls since Ten Hag’s arrival last summer. They have spent more than £330million in transfer fees under him and, this pre-season, he outlined his ambitions as to how the team play and where in the league table he thinks they will land when the music stops next May.

United fans may have their differences over how good Ten Hag’s signings have been but there is a lot more agreement that more has to be spent to close the gap to Manchester City, who are off to a 100 per cent start in pursuit of a sixth title in seven seasons.

It will take something more substantial than extra running at the training ground to realign this new campaign.

(Top photo: Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)