The questions and critiques will continue to swirl around Old Trafford for as long as there is turbulence in results, but standing in the eye of a storm Erik ten Hag once again got a performance from his players to bring some level of calm.
Manchester United’s manager is developing a habit of responding to adversity by making a big call and getting a big win.
Last season, after two losses opened the campaign, he dropped Cristiano Ronaldo (as well as Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw) and saw his players produce victory against Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.
For the visit of Mauricio Pochettino’s Chelsea last night — following a defeat at Newcastle United so lacking in energy and application that many observers wondered about an erosion of the manager’s authority — Ten Hag benched Marcus Rashford and provoked an aggressive display cemented by team cohesion.
The 2-1 win was arguably United’s most complete performance of the season, coming with 28 shots and an expected goals figure of 4.07, the second most of any side in a Premier League game this campaign (behind Chelsea’s 4.12 against a Tottenham Hotspur team playing with nine men for 35 minutes).
The heat heading into the contest was turned up by United banning four media organisations from Ten Hag’s pre-match press conference over a failure to check stories about dressing-room unrest before publishing. Ten Hag still answered on the subject, insisting he retains buy-in from his players, and whatever gripes there may be about his management style from within his squad, the type of performance subsequently produced by those he selected gave validation to his words.
There were loose elements to Ten Hag’s team, with Chelsea breaking through midfield on occasions in the first half but, for the most part, United played with a high tempo and the kind of synchronised movement that had been absent at St James’ Park.
Taking Rashford out of the XI was a major decision, even if the forward’s showing at Newcastle had been so underwhelming. Rashford had started all but one of the previous 14 Premier League games this season — and that was due to injury.
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But when his back’s against a wall, Ten Hag is not afraid to remove an important brick and the front players he chose instead — Antony, Rasmus Hojlund and Alejandro Garnacho — pressed Chelsea effectively.
Rashford got a detailed talk and encouraging arm around the waist from Ten Hag as he waited to go on in the 84th minute, and when he did so it was to replace Hojlund up top rather than take his preferred position on the left wing or indeed on the right, where his past three appearances have been.
How that situation develops will be interesting to observe, with Garnacho putting in another compelling argument to keep his place on the left. Garnacho set up the winning goal with the perfect inswinging cross to the far post, where three United players were queuing up, and also carried the ball a good distance and applied himself out of possession.
Rashford, however, has the best pedigree for scoring of any player in United’s squad. And with Hojlund yet to open his Premier League account, Ten Hag must find goals in other places too. Hojlund ran hard but touched the ball only 19 times, with four in the box. One of those was a snapshot from a Shaw pass that Robert Sanchez saved by diving low, but on several occasions, team-mates failed to find Hojlund.
In the circumstances, Ten Hag is leaning into Scott McTominay’s ability to time runs into the area and shoot cleanly. McTominay’s first, a quick touch and finish, was reminiscent of one he scored against Leeds United, while his second owed everything to being in the right place at the right time. His brace moved him to five goals for the Premier League campaign, his career-high total for a season already (he got four in 2019-20 and 2020-21), and he could have scored more had Sanchez not saved twice at point-blank range. McTominay had five shots on target in total from nine touches in the opposition box.
“He has the skills to arrive there in the right moment, to smell, and then he has a very good finish,” said Ten Hag. “Sometimes he is lower, but in our game plan it is often that we want him to be high, so the team has to make it happen that he gets into positions where he is around the striker, then he can make runs.”
Allowing McTominay to push on puts a strain on midfield, with Bruno Fernandes also advanced. There was too much space at Newcastle and Galatasaray but against Chelsea Sofyan Amrabat covered the area superbly, making 11 ball recoveries, more than any other player, and winning all three of his tackles.
“It’s a matter of organisation — we have to get the players in the right positions,” said Ten Hag of United’s defensive shape when McTominay is attacking. “It means other players have to play deeper. You make use of their attributes.”
That approach needs every player in the team invested in the connected movements, which has not always happened this season. Even against Chelsea, United needed Andre Onana to deny Nicolas Jackson one-on-one and they were soft in trying to thwart Cole Palmer’s run into the area from which he scored.
Ten Hag replaced Victor Lindelof with Sergio Reguilon at the interval, shifting Shaw to centre-back and getting more of the proactive defending that allows those ahead to squeeze up. Stopping Chelsea going the other way was a collaborative effort, with Reguilon and Fernandes making tackles to draw worship from the crowd.
Amid the current narrative, United fans in the Stretford End made clear their backing of Ten Hag in chant. They wanted the players to simply cover the necessary ground and go from there.
McTominay explained United were able to sustain sprints late into the game because the manager kept training to a minimum. “A lot of light training sessions to keep energy, to keep fresh,” he said.
The mood around United is lighter after an important victory.
(Top photo: Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)