It was always going to be like this, isn’t it? One of the darkest weeks in Man Utd in recent history with a game against the arch rivals, Liverpool, to come. It was the best performance you have seen from Man Utd since the opening day of last season against Leeds. Sancho put United on their way with a remarkably cool finish. Rashford ran through on goal in the second half to put them two ahead. Salah made things nervy at the end with a goal at the end for Liverpool but The Red Devils saw it through. A win to finally start the Erik Ten Hag reign. Finally.
Back to Basics
When the appointment of Erik ten Hag was announced, the fans were most excited about the advancement of coaching and tactics that would come with the Dutchman. Much of what was seen was his exploits with that Ajax team that he took to within a kick of the Champions League final in 2019. However, his coaching career began before that and with Go Ahead Eagles and Utrecht, you saw a pragmatism that you have to employ when you aren’t one of the bigger teams in the league. You have to be able to get the basics right.
It really is such a damning indictment of the Man Utd’s recent play that such a performance tonight was deserving of such praise from fans and pundits alike. In terms of shape, it was a 4-4-2, with Bruno and Rashford, then Martial in the second half, providing the front two who would go to press. The middle four of Sancho Eriksen McTom and Elanga was the protection for the dynamic back four of Dalot Varane Martinez Malacia. The dynamism in the back four meant that the players were able to push up the pitch with insurance that they would all be able, and willing, to get back. Eriksen playing CM reminded me of when he played alongside Bentaleb at Southampton away in 2013/14 under Tim Sherwood. He was obviously much younger then but he and Scotsman done very well in nicking balls in the middle of the pitch within the first 20 or so minutes. When they have to protect space better once Liverpool got on the ball more, then did so relatively well. The last 15 of the first half they were getting a bit stretched with the rotations of the opposition midfield but coped better in the second half.
Klopp’s Liverpool are renowned for their high line and pressing but with it, comes the risk of space in behind. This United team for the past 5 or so years have always been much better countering into space than having to break down deep blocks. Ten Hag’s intention was set out with his dropping of Ronaldo for Elanga. Being able to counter into the space with Elanga, Sancho and Rashford was the basic idea and it worked very well. Much maligned as the Swedish winger is, in that first half, he absolutely ran Alexander Arnold ragged. He could have got him booked within the first 5 minutes when he got hooked on the edge of the box. He did eventually like 10 minutes later. For the first goal, the quick one two, symptomatic of the pace in the move, with Eriksen that completely done the Liverpool RB again. Elanga was able to pass into Sancho who showed incredible composure for the goal, reminiscent of a goal Raheem Sterling scored against Man City 8 years ago.
A Storied Player
A football fan loves a bit of serendipity. It is something that can capture imaginations. If you were to look for a player to encapsulate serendipity then Marcus Rashford would be the one to do that. The goals against Midtjylland and Arsenal were something that would be written in a movie. If you were to look at Rashford in the last 18 months though, it looks like something you would write in a horror movie. He has looked absolutely bereft of confidence and almost dreading having to play football.
This isn’t the first time Rashford has had a period like that in the red of Man Utd. Liverpool were coming to town unbeaten in October 2019. Rashford was in a bad stretch of form, that carried over from the last season. But the feeling followed a similar way that the script went tonight. United played on the counter in a real dark moment of their season. He linked up with his striker partner on that occasion too, with Daniel James finding him with a cross. Martial wasn’t quite his strike partner when he came on but he still delivered the pass that set him baring down on Allison goal, which he managed to tuck with aplomb. The aplomb that we loved to see from Rashford. His development and career has been storied in such a way that if it were to end on a bad moment then it would leave a bad taste in the mouth. Recent links have had him going to Paris Saint Germain but with performances like that, on nights like this, why would he want to leave? He was aggressive with his runs, cute with his decisions to play it safe and even looked to be taking on his men again. The story of Rashford at United hopefully has more pages to be written.