By Simon Peach, PA Chief Football Writer
Erik ten Hag threw his support behind the under-fire Bruno Fernandes and confirmed the playmaker will continue to captain Manchester United in the wake of the Liverpool debacle.
Sunday saw the Old Trafford giants suffer the joint heaviest competitive defeat in the club’s history, just a week after they celebrated winning their first silverware in six years,
The 7-0 defeat at bitter rivals Liverpool will live long in the memory and the second-half capitulation raised questions about the mentality of the group more than the team’s quality.
Fernandes, who captained the side in the absence of Harry Maguire, has come in for particular criticism, with former skipper Roy Keane saying his body language was a “disgrace”.
Gary Neville offered a similarly scathing criticism of the Portuguese, saying it “wasn’t a captain’s performance by a Manchester United player” – the kind of stinging assessment that led Ten Hag to stand up for the 28-year-old.
Asked if Fernandes will continue to captain the side going forward, manager Ten Hag said: “Yes, definitely.
“I think 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.
“He’s not only running a lot at the highest intensity but also in the right way and right direction.
“He’s pointing and coaching players. He’s an inspiration for the whole team but no one is perfect. Everyone has his mistakes and 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 my team and I am really happy that Bruno Fernandes, if Harry is not on the pitch, is our captain.”
Marcus Rashford also defended Fernandes as the group look to bounce back against Real Betis in the first leg of their Europa League last-16 clash on Thursday.
“We have to set conclusions and that’s what we did,” Ten Hag said, having held a debrief on Monday with the players about the Anfield annihilation.
“Of course we talked about (it) and we have seen that game and set the right conclusions. From there on we have to reset and bounce back.”
Ten Hag rejected the notion that the players had let him down against Liverpool, saying “we are in the same boat” before adding “we make a mess on Sunday and we have to deal with that”.
“I think the players reflected well,” the United boss said. “But we also know when you go in a season setbacks will always be there and it was a huge setback. Clear.
“But when you had a run of 23 games with one loss, now that was the second, but the way there was a lot of lessons in it and that can help us for the future.
“That’s the positive out of it, how negative it is. We were really below average, especially mentally wise. We have to take that lesson.
“We want to be a big team, we want to win trophies so then you have to act different.
“After Sunday we got a big lesson and we take that but now we have to move on and look forward.
1️⃣4️⃣ goals in 8️⃣ #UEL matches so far 👊#MUFC || @EuropaLeague
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) March 7, 2023
“That is the way we treated it. Now all the energy, all the focus has to be on the next game.”
Marcel Sabitzer came off the bench in Sunday’s loss but Ten Hag confirmed the on-loan midfielder will be absent from the first leg against Betis.
“We have a strong programme,” Ten Hag added. “But I think we are quite good. The only disappointment is Marcel Sabitzer is not available, as well as Anthony Martial.
“Anthony Martial is back on the pitch, so we will see. For the rest, everyone is available and we are ready for the game.”