Here’s how the Dutchman turned disaster into desire and gave Old Trafford a night for the ages

From the white hot mess of Brentford, to a night that stirred the soul at Old Trafford, Erik ten Hag provided a reference point that Manchester United fans will hope to one day look back on as defining moment. The thrilling victory against Liverpool was born out of the wreckage of defeat in west London a week prior, with Ten Hag beginning his preparations for Jurgen Klopp during that humiliation at the Gtech Community Stadium.

It was midway through the 4-0 defeat served up by Thomas Frank that United’s manager took the decision to cancel the players’ day off the following day. 

The work required to remedy that disaster could not wait – nor could the point he was so intent on making.

Public humiliation

It was a show of authority to the players who had so badly let him down. The Dutchman had largely shielded them from criticism after their opening defeat to Brighton – but there would be no protecting them now.
He would have substituted all XI at half time, if he’d had the chance, he boldly told reporters in the aftermath.

The day off was cancelled – and, crucially, there was no attempt to keep that information in-house. No closing of ranks. This punishment was public.
His insistence on making the players run the 8.5miles difference in distance covered by Brentford during a heatwave was symbolic.

A sign to the players and supporters that their manager acknowledged their failings and they would not be accepted under his watch.
It has since emerged that he put himself through the same gruelling run as a show of collective responsibility.
Still, it was also a risky move so early in his tenure – placing him in danger of losing a squad that had already gone missing under the previous two managers.
In his mind, it was a risk worth taking.

Fixing it on the training ground

While the decision to order the squad in to Carrington was a statement, it had wider significance. 

Ten Hag is a coach and he believes the training ground is the place to resolve issues. 

It is where he is most comfortable. Where he can work on the details. And, as furious as he was about the attitude of his players at Brentford, he also accepts that he is in the process of instilling a new way of playing at United. 

He wants his methods to take hold quickly and was encouraged by how receptive the players were in the summer. But defeats to Brighton and Brentford were a wake-up call. 

Insiders have noted quick he is to point out if players are not doing what he wants on the training ground. Sessions will be stopped as he tries to make his instructions clearer. 

The fact that the Liverpool game was not until the Monday gave him more time to work on his tactics – and that showed in the way United stuck to a game-plan of exposing space behind Trent Alexander-Arnold, while the link-up between Bruno Fernandes, Christian Eriksen and the forwards was more fluid than at any point this season.

Leadership summit

But this wasn’t purely about tactics. Ten Hag needed to change the mindset of a group who have too easily looked defeated over the past 12 months. 

He has his leaders in his squad, who were part of key discussions in the week as to how to move forward. Captain, Harry Maguire, is one of them. Cristiano Ronaldo is another hugely influential figure in the dressing room.

Marcus Rashford is younger, but a strong voice. Ten Hag wants more leaders – and it was a huge call to leave Maguire and Ronaldo out of his starting line-up, knowing the noise that would generate.

Getting the big calls right

It cannot be underestimated the risk he took in leaving out his captain and his biggest star – especially in light of the uncertainty surrounding both players’ futures. 

The Maguire call was significant in as much as it suggested Ten Hag is not afraid to admit when he is wrong. 

He gave himself little room for manoeuvre when confirming the England centre back would retain his captaincy during the summer. 

Having signed Lisandro Martinez as a left-sided specialist, it left Maguire, Raphael Varane and Victor Lindelof competing from one position – and there was little chance he’d leave his skipper out at the start of the season. 

But so unconvincing has Maguire been that Ten Hag has ended up dropping his captain after just two games, with the £80million defender unlikely to get back in any time soon. 

Ronaldo might have been an easier decision to make, given his lack of pre-season and the disruption caused by his desire to leave. 

Even still – the sight of the Portuguese legend and Maguire alongside each other on the bench, would have made for bad optics if United had suffered a third straight defeat. 

Now Ten Hag has total power over the situation, which could even see one of them leave before the transfer window closes.

Man management

While Maguire and Ronaldo were the ultimate fall guys after Brentford, Ten Hag resisted the opportunity to take summer signing Martinez out of the firing line. 

On reflection, he’d actually done that the previous week when substituting the Argentine at half-time. 

Martinez struggled under the pressure from Ivan Toney and Bryan Mbeumo, but Ten Hag had been satisfied with certain aspects of his game, including his use of the ball. 

By taking him out at the break, he protected the centre back in a game that was already lost. The benefits of that were clear to see against Liverpool, with Martinez one of the outstanding performers on the night. 

Fernandes and Jadon Sancho also repaid their manager’s faith. 

Niether had impressed in the opening two games, but Ten Hag had been encouraged enough by they’re efforts, as well as their willingness to take on his ideas. 

Fernandes – wearing the armband – typified the fight Ten Hag demanded, while Sancho gave a glimpse of how dangerous he can be when combining his flair and work rate. 

Meanwhile, Rashford was challenged and moved out of his comfort zone to lead the attack. 

That is something Ten Hag will take a closer look at if Ronaldo goes and a central striker cannot be secured. 

Rashford is understood to be open to playing centrally this season, despite his preference to operate wide on the left. 

If Antony is signed before deadline day, it would pave the way for Ten Hag to utilise Rashford through the middle more often.

The Casemiro effect

The priority now is to bring in a forward before the window closes – but the arrival of Casemiro for £60million has been greeted with a sense of relief within Old Trafford. 

After the drawn-out pursuit of Frenkie de Jong, United were under pressure to deliver a world class alternative if they failed to land the Dutchman. 

Casemiro is precisely that – and ticks a number of boxes for Ten Hag, who made it clear from the moment he took over that he needed a No6 to make his system work.

As well as the Brazilian’s combative qualities and ability to link defence and midfield, his attitude was one of his most appealing traits. 

Ten Hag believes his side needs more winners after such a lack of success over the past nine years. But he is also trying to change the profile of his squad with the addition of more fight. 

Martinez – nicknamed the Butcher – fits that description, while Tyrell Malacia, who made his first start on Monday, displayed his battling instincts, despite being signed for his modern, attack-minded style.

Convictions of his philosophy

What has come across in abundance is Ten Hag’s continued confidence in his methods, even in the face of such a humbling start to life in English football.

Sources say he has been robust in conversations even with his superiors at United because he knows precisely what he wants – and what it will take to be successful.

After Brentford he was adamant he would not have to compromise his philosophy – believing the failings were down to with attitude and individual mistakes, not his ideas on the game.

In his analysis he could also see external factors – the failure to bring in a holding midfielder and injury to Anthony Martial being two key reasons for the poor start.

“We are in the very early days of the work we have to do here to deliver the success we all want,” he wrote in his programme notes ahead of Liverpool.

“What we are trying to build – a winning team with an attractive, dynamic style of play – will take time to achieve.”

Engaging the fans

Those words sent the right message to supporters who were beginning to the fear the worst.

It was all about setting the right tone and changing the narrative in the build-up to such a critical game. Ten Hag began that the previous Friday.

“I’m not here for myself, I’m here for the club and to restore the club,” he said in a rousing address. “I knew before this is a challenge and I wanted this challenge.

“I knew before it was going to be hard, but I wanted that because in my career, everywhere I started, the start was difficult – but I get it done. And I’m convinced I get it done here as well.”

It is only one game. But for anyone inside Old Trafford on Monday night, it felt like lift-off for the Ten Hag era.

(Article Source: James Robson for GOAL)


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