Cox: United played like an underdog Solskjaer – but Sancho’s goal was exemplary Tin Hag

They say the model book goes out the window in big games like Manchester United against Liverpool, but if anything, it was Erich Ten Hag’s proof that went out the window. Last night we learned very little about the future direction of Manchester United under the Dutchman but we did learn a lot about Tin Hag himself.

This was a deeply pragmatic tactical approach from Ten Hag, designed with the opponent and past United performances in mind.

The general stats could be misleading given that United led since the 16th minute and the onus was on Liverpool to take control. However, United’s 66 per cent pass completion rate was lower than anything they scored for the entirety of last season, and their third lowest in this Premier League season to date. The two lowest figures are Fulham against Liverpool on opening day (62 per cent) and Brentford against United last week (65 per cent). In other words, this performance was typical of an underdog who put their noses up early.

And this was, in fairness, a Manchester United performance that marked various stages. They didn’t try to play mainly in the break from the opening minutes. They were aggressive without possession, pushed and tight. The strikers pressed well and at the back, Lisandro Martinez held up against Roberto Firmino and the defenders followed the Liverpool players wide as they drifted into deeper positions. They forced long balls from the Liverpool defense, initially turning them into a home and away game rather than a game of control. This suits them.

United created good moments as well. Their first two chances of the match had a similarity in that Scott McTominay poked the ball into Bruno Fernandes, who then cleverly found a striker – first Marcus Rashford, then Anthony Ilanga – in space.

Rashford’s shot was saved by Virgil van Dijk.

…and Ilanga’s shot hit the post.

These weren’t counter-attacks, but they showed United were the best when attacking quickly at the back.

Then the goal came. This was, frankly, quite atypical compared to the rest of Manchester United’s performance, but it could define the era of Tin Hag. It was a great goal that showed some clear things on the part of Ajax led by Ten Hag.

First, there was the presence of central players in wide areas to create overloads. It started with Rashford and Fernandes, the pivotal attackers in a 4-2-3-1 Ten Hag game, together on the right.

Second, and perhaps most important, there was that big shift in play from Fernandes to Christian Eriksen, from right to left. This was a particularly common trait of Ajax’s Ten Hag player, who continued to build play on one side, drag the opponent across, and then pass the ball to a free man on the opposite side.

But this was not decisive in the goal, because Eriksen did not shoot.

Hence, the third major factor was patience. United didn’t worry about losing this scoring opportunity – they kept moving the ball down on the left, back and forward again, before Ilanga played Eriksen and cut the ball to Sancho.

Even Sancho’s finish was patient, he turned inside, sent Alisson the wrong way, then simply passed the ball into the net. In Solskjaer’s performance otherwise, that was Ten Hag’s goal.

Then the game changed and United could only play on the counter-attack. And this appears to have inspired Ten Hag’s first crucial replacement for his reign at Manchester United. Ilanga was playing well: he helped take Trent Alexander-Arnold’s yellow card, hit the post and set up Sancho’s opener. But Elanga is a dodger on the outside, more than a classic winger, and Ten Hag now wanted someone to blast off into the vast space behind Alexander-Arnold. That man was Rashford, who had started up front. So Anthony Martial replaced Ilanga, with Rashford changing his positions.

It worked out perfectly for the second goal – Marshall slipping into Rashford, who stayed close and provided the kind of finish we expected from Rashford two years ago.

And now, that looked like Manchester United from Solskjaer’s finest reign, with Martial and Rashford introducing the offensive threat primarily through speed. An odd tactician, Solskjaer was largely instrumental in preparing United for big tests against Manchester City and Liverpool, but he was sorely lacking in terms of devising a more general strategy to smash weaker teams.

But United are still better suited to play in the break. Martial and Rashford are better in those positions, and Ilanga and Sancho are wide as well. Even Fernandes thrived here by rushing forward rather than helping control the game – stylistically, he’s a player of moments rather than consistency. Manchester United’s style has always been more about speed than possession, and it’s worth noting that Ten Hag backed out – intentionally or accidentally – when he desperately demanded three points.

If the reports are to be believed, Ten Hag is apparently happy to have Cristiano Ronaldo leave the club, with United’s owners not being convinced. The board’s opinion of Ronaldo’s value to Manchester United may not depend entirely on football factors, but if Tin Hag wanted to take his football case against Ronaldo, that performance and score without him would have done the trick.

It will be interesting to see how Manchester United play away from Southampton next weekend. Naturally, you would expect Ten Hag to switch to possession-based football, and they certainly wouldn’t score a pass completion rate as low as 65%. But Southampton love to control the ball and play one of the top defensive lines in the Premier League.

“Same again” might be the order of the day. But the longer Tin Hag plays in this type of football, the more difficult it will be to switch to the type of football he prefers.


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