Right down to his post-match interview with F-bomb, Monday night at Old Trafford was the occasion when Eric ten Hag’s bold choices were a leap forward into his tenure as Manchester United manager.
Sky Sports host Dave Jones may have needed to apologize to viewers for insisting his team could “play good football”, suggesting a possible translation issue, but the smart money is on the Dutchman which means exactly what he said. The swearing-in on live TV is a powerful expression of his core belief in the players, in a week he criticized their request, and you can be confident the clip will make its way around the team.
More importantly, the courage of Ten Hag’s choices paid off. With varying degrees of shock, he sent Cristiano Ronaldo, Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw to the bench, and started Anthony Ilanga, Raphael Varane and Terrell Malacia.
Bringing down the United captain is a major call, but Ronaldo brings global scrutiny and, more importantly, is the pivotal figure in Ten Hag’s battle to execute his style.
the athlete He reported how Ronaldo cut into a reclusive Carrington figure in his quest to leave the club and fend off push-ups in training. His return to the starting line-up at Brentford coincided with United’s 95.6km run and 65 speed run – 13.8km and 25 fewer sprints than their opponents. Ronaldo was not entirely responsible for that, of course, but the high energy tempo requires the participation of every player. If one domino falls, they all scatter.
In front of Liverpool, United covered 113.8 km and made 155 speeds, outperforming Jurgen Klopp’s team in both measures. Far from banishing his players by canceling a day off and demanding a running session after Brentford’s loss, these numbers suggest an immediate reaction.
Although Anthony Martial was only fit enough to start on the bench, Ten Hag didn’t turn to Ronaldo, instead opting for Ilanga for his emphatic commitment to the plan.
Elanga hit the post and secured a reservation for Trent Alexander-Arnold with his direct run, a key component of what Klopp described as United’s “aggressive” start.
Martial came at the break and set up Marcus Rashford’s goal.
Ronaldo had the final four minutes, but by then Ten Hag had made his point: United could win without the 37-year-old. To view more, whatever his goal-scoring prowess, Ronaldo must adapt. “I think he can,” said Ten Hag. “Throughout his career under many directors, he has performed many methods and systems. He has always performed, so why not do this? His age is not an issue.”
On a general topic, Tin Hag said: “Sometimes you think strikers can’t do that (pressing) because they have to save energy to do offensive actions. Now it’s football, both are a requirement.”
Tin Hag’s defensive changes after that 4-0 disaster against Brentford also worked.
Varane replaced Maguire and enjoyed one of his best matches with United. Lisandro Martinez, the subject of much controversy since joining, was United’s best player, throwing himself in front of Mohamed Salah’s shot, stopping Bruno Fernandes on the goal line, and generally playing with frantic intentions that generated a connection with the fans.
He irritated James Milner by digging his fingers into his head, a moment that demonstrated what Ten Hag described as “Grinta” in South America. “An absolute will to win, and a controlled passion,” said Ten Hag, who was also convinced Martinez’s 5ft 9in (175cm) height was no problem in the Premier League.
The Malacia is three inches shorter but has a touch of ‘Grinta’ too. He sparked another wave of noise from the stands in the second half when he blocked Alexander-Arnold twice in quick succession with a corner flag, leading to his second challenge.
Although Tin Hag had doubled down on his claims outside of possession, he was pragmatic in one crucial aspect. Not once did David de Gea hit a short goal kick. The welcome mat that was sent to Brentford was stored away from Liverpool. Instead, De Gea surpassed Liverpool’s high pressure.
At one point in the first half, Tin Hag darted out of his bunker to take Rashford from center-attack to the ring wing, so he pulled over to Andrew Robertson (shown below). Jadon Sancho moves to the middle and Tin Hag points to De Gea as he sends the ball. The same thing happened again minutes later.
This may have contributed to Liverpool reclaiming the ball more frequently, resulting in them having 70 per cent of possession, so in the long term Ten Hag will want to develop his side to play from behind. But for a game tailored to when the pressure was on, Ten Hag has been wisely modified.
Bringing in Casemiro should encourage this strategy. United players are said to view his arrival as a “blessing”, regardless of his transfer fee and wages, and the idea is that his calmness in picking up the ball from defenders and passing forward will help maintain intended possession.
Tin Hag kicked off all three completed new engagements in what seemed like a statement of his eye for new recruits as the window remained open. Sources close to Ajax expect United to make another bid for Anthony, who watched the Liverpool game on TV, with some putting the potential bid at €94m (£79.4m, $93.2m). Cody Gakbo is another target.
As for the wings already in place, the finishing touches on Sancho and Rashford carried the confidence they built in pre-season. Both contributed defensively as well. Even after 71 minutes, Rashford sprinted to lock down Joe Gomez and then slipped on Alexander Arnold to recharge the field.
Protests against the Glazers have fueled the atmosphere inside Old Trafford, and outrage has sparked joy and back again. Every goal was greeted with chants against the Manchester United owners. Maintaining that level of performance in Southampton, when the temperature is simmering, will be the real test.
Tin Hag seemed to want to enjoy his first competitive win. He stayed after midnight and spent several minutes signing autographs and taking pictures with fans who waited patiently. More than anyone else, it was his occasion to taste.
(Top Image: Michael Reagan/Getty Images)