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Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag believes top-level football has already “crossed the limits of what players can handle” as he prepares for a critical six days for his club.

United had made their worst start to a season since 1962 as they headed into their away match at Fulham on November 4, with eight defeats in their opening 15 matches in all competitions, as injuries continued to rob Ten Hag of momentum and balance.

Ten Hag believes the team are now on an upward trajectory after winning that match at Fulham and the subsequent home Premier League game against Luton, to leave them with four wins from five in the league.

They now face a hugely testing run, with a match away at Everton on Sunday immediately followed by a make-or-break trip to Istanbul to face Galatasaray in the Champions League on Wednesday and another tough Premier League encounter against Newcastle at St James’ Park next Saturday.

Ten Hag believes modern football’s workload is already too punishing, with worse still to come as UEFA prepares for an expansion of its club competitions from next season.

“Every manager is complaining about the schedule,” he said.

“On Thursday I heard the statements of (Bayern Munich head coach) Thomas Tuchel, every manager, but still they keep adding games to the schedule.

“Next year they add again two games (in the new Champions League format) and the limits are… we already achieved the limits. I think we already crossed the limits of what players can handle.

“And then what we see now in the first 12 Premier League games, the physical standards are even higher in comparison to last year. You have a choice to make. Either you match it by training and preparation, or you drop off.

“So that is a decision that every club has to make, every team has to make, every individual has to make.”

Casemiro is among a group of players unavailable to Manchester United through injury
Casemiro is among a group of players unavailable to Manchester United through injury (Richard Sellers/PA)

Ten Hag refused to divulge how he managed it, but said: “You have to do it smart. Every team knows you have to suffer and sacrifice. If you want to prepare for games then at certain right moments you have to go to certain physical levels if you want to match those standards, and those standards are not set by us, but set by the opposition.”

The three road trips represent a real test of character for Ten Hag’s squad, and he is confident his players are capable of winning the physical battles against their opponents.

“We emphasised (to the players) in the last couple of games, ‘first get into the fight’”, he said.

“When you don’t have a left-back, when you don’t have a right winger, when you have to swap your team and maybe the routines are not 100 per cent working, make sure you get the foundation by getting into the fight.

“Make sure you run harder than your opponent, cover each other, (have) quick reactions, and that gives you a foundation because our players are very good. They have a lot of skills, they have a lot of abilities.

“So the football is always in there. Once we have our mindset clear and bright and we are in the fight, we will find our moments where we can do brilliant things because our players are capable of doing that.

“And I think we have seen that in the last couple of games and that’s why we have won four (out) of five.”

Ten Hag said left-back Luke Shaw would be back in his squad for the trip to face Everton after being out since August with a thigh muscle injury.

Striker Rasmus Hojlund is a doubt with a muscle injury sustained in the Luton match on November 11, while his compatriot Christian Eriksen (knee) will miss out.

Goalkeeper Andre Onana has overcome a knock he suffered on international duty with Cameroon but Jonny Evans (thigh), Casemiro (thigh) and Lisandro Martinez (foot) remain sidelined.

Ten Hag will himself be absent from the touchline after he was given a one-match ban for accumulating three yellow cards.