Right down to his F-bomb post-match interview, Monday night at Old Trafford was the occasion when Erik ten Hag’s bold choices acted as jump leads to his reign as Manchester United manager.
Sky Sports host Dave Jones may have needed to apologise to viewers for ten Hag insisting his team can “fucking play good football”, proposing a possible translation issue, but the smart money is on the Dutchman meaning exactly what he said. Swearing on live television represents a forceful expression of his underlying faith in his players, in a week when he has criticised their application, and you can be confident the clip will make its way round the squad.
More significantly, the courage of Ten Hag’s selections paid off. To the bench he sent Cristiano Ronaldo, Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw, to varying degrees of shock, and played Anthony Elanga, Raphael Varane and Tyrell Malacia.
Dropping United’s captain is a major call, but Ronaldo brings a global scrutiny and, more so, is the pivotal figure in Ten Hag’s battle to implement his style.
The Athletic has reported how Ronaldo has cut an isolated figure at Carrington in his quest to leave the club and pushed back against pressing drills in training. His return to the starting line-up at Brentford coincided with United running 95.6km and making 65 sprints, 13.8km and 25 sprints less than their opponents. Ronaldo was not entirely responsible for that, of course, but a high-energy tempo requires buy-in from every player. If one domino falls they all scatter.
Against Liverpool, United covered 113.8km and made 155 sprints, bettering Jurgen Klopp’s side on both measures. Far from alienating his players by cancelling a day off and demanding a running session following the Brentford loss, these numbers show an instant reaction.
Even though Anthony Martial was fit enough only to begin on the bench, Ten Hag still did not turn to Ronaldo, instead selecting Elanga for his undoubted commitment to the instructions.
Elanga hit the post and drew a booking for Trent Alexander-Arnold through his direct running, a key component to what Klopp called United’s “aggressive” start.
Martial came on at the break and set-up Marcus Rashford’s goal.
Ronaldo got the final four minutes but by then Ten Hag had made his point; United can win without the 37-year-old. To feature more, whatever his supreme scoring prowess, Ronaldo must adapt. “I think he can,” said Ten Hag. “The whole of his career under several managers he did several styles and systems. He always performed, so why can’t he do this? His age is not an issue.”
On a general theme, Ten Hag argued: “Sometimes you think strikers cannot do it (press) because they have to save the energy for offensive actions. Now it is football, both are a demand.”
Ten Hag’s defensive changes after that 4-0 calamity in London also worked.
Varane replaced Maguire and enjoyed one of his best games for United. Lisandro Martinez, the subject of much debate since joining, was United’s best player, flinging himself in front of a Mohamed Salah shot, stopping a Bruno Fernandes own goal on the line, and generally playing with a feverish intent that generates a connection with fans.
He riled James Milner by digging his fingers into his head, what Ten Hag described as a South Amerian “grinta”. “An absolute will to win, controlled emotion,” said Ten Hag, who is also absolutely convinced Martinez’s 5ft 9in height is not an issue in the Premier League.
Malacia is three inches shorter but has a touch of “grinta” too. He provoked another wave of noise from the stands in the second period by tackling Alexander-Arnold twice in quick succession by the corner flag, thundering into his second challenge.
For all Ten Hag’s doubling down on his demands out of possession, he was pragmatic in one crucial aspect. David de Gea did not once take a short goalkick. The welcome mat rolled out to Brentford was stored away for Liverpool. Instead De Gea bypassed Liverpool’s high press.
At one stage in the first half Ten Hag rushed from his dugout to beckon Rashford over from centre-forward to ring wing, so he pulled onto Andrew Robertson (as shown below). Jadon Sancho moved to the middle and Ten Hag pointed to De Gea where to send the ball. The same happened again minutes later.
That may have contributed to Liverpool regaining the ball more frequently, leading to a 70 percent possession advantage, so long-term Ten Hag will want to develop his side for playing out from the back. But for a tailored game when the pressure was on Ten Hag wisely modified.
Bringing in Casemiro should encourage that strategy. United players are said to consider his arrival a “blessing”, whatever about his transfer fee and wages, and the idea is his calmness at picking the ball off defenders and passing forwards will help retain purposeful possession.
Ten Hag started all three of his completed new signings in what felt like a statement about his eye for new recruits with the window still open. Sources close to Ajax expect United to make another bid for Antony, who watched the Liverpool game on television, with some placing the potential offer at €94 million. Cody Gakpo is another target.
As for the wingers already in place, the finishes by Sancho and Rashford bore the confidence they built on pre-season. The both contributed defensively as well. Even after 71 minutes Rashford sprinted to close down Joe Gomez then slid in on Alexander-Arnold to recharge the electricity in the stadium.
The protests against the Glazers fed into the atmosphere inside Old Trafford, anger fuelling joy and back round again. Each goal was greeted with chants against United’s owners. Maintaining this performance level at Southampton, when the temperature has turned to a simmer, will be the real litmus test.
Ten Hag seemed to want to soak up his first competitive win. He stayed beyond midnight and spent several minutes signing autographs and posing for pictures with fans who had waited patiently. More than anyone’s it was his occasion to savour.