It was not long ago that iconic English club Manchester United was in considerable turmoil.
After finishing second under former striker Ole Gunnar Solskjær in 2020-21 and third the season before, with United reaching the semi-finals and finals of the Europa League during both full seasons he was in charge, the Red Devils fell off a cliff in 2021-22 to the tune of a sixth place finish in the Premier League and a whopping 35-points adrift of champions Manchester City.
The baby-faced assassin was stripped of his duties in late November, with the godfather of Gegenpressing - Ralf Rangnick - brought in as caretaker manager in his stead on 3 December.
But the well-thought-of German, who helped shape tactical progression in the Bundesliga while in key roles at FC Schalke 04, TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, and RB Leipzig (in a myriad of positions), showed that his knack for management had waned over the years as he could not get the club firing while dealing with a wealth of issues on and off the pitch.
His warning would not go unheaded overall, however, and when Erik ten Hag arrived at the Theatre of Dreams this summer, it was apparent to the Dutch tactician that investment in the transfer market was needed to breathe new life and vibrancy into a stale United senior set up.
Fast-forward to Wednesday night, and United’s progression under the former AFC Ajax headmaster is clear for all to see.
Heralded as “the best team performance so far this season” by the 52-year-old Haaksbergen native, United’s 2-0 win over Antonio Conte’s much-talked-about Tottenham outfit at Old Trafford was billed by Arsenal legend Thierry Henry as “...first time I saw what I used to see with his Ajax team.”
And in truth, Ten Hag’s men should have run riot on the scoresheet if not for a host of spurned chances by England international Marcus Rashford. Though the scoreline flattered to deceive for Conte’s men, the United fanbase has grown in confidence as the club has shown huge signs of improvement under the Dutchman’s command that has netted wins against Liverpool and Arsenal before the Spurs result.
With another key clash with a direct rival coming in the vein of Graham Potter’s Chelsea at Stamford Bridge tomorrow evening, there are a few key talking points that could once again crop up when the Red Devils look to invade west London to plunder three points.
Marcus Rashford: Effective movement
“He could have done better. This is what I say when this ball is coming to you, have a look at the goalkeeper to freeze him. Strikers don’t do that often, the ball is coming to you, you know it, you have to look at the goalkeeper to freeze him and he never looked.”
“What you do normally, he just fires low and across. Power is not always the answer. You open the ball up, just finish it. Place it down here. Why hard? Side foot, goal, see you later. But it was right at him [the goalkeeper]. But great save from Hugo [Lloris].”
Thierry Henry’s scathing review of Marcus Rashford’s performance in the immediate aftermath of United’s win may be a hard pill to swallow, but the criticism was hardly unjustified after the all-time leading scorer for France ran the rule over the Red Devils star’s inability to find the back of the net.
But despite his struggle to bag a goal on a night where Rashford performed quite well despite his lack of end product, the England man showed what he brings to the table when leading the line over the underfire Cristiano Ronaldo.
Though the 24-year-old did not register the most total shots - that honor goes to both Bruno Fernandes and Fred with 6 - he did have the joint-most shots on target (3) while earning an xG of 0.70 (according to FBRef) which speaks to the high value of a handful of his chances. This indicates that though he did not finish, he is getting himself into the right areas to influence matters while also not constantly demanding the ball.
Rashford made just 36-touches during his outing against Spurs, the lowest of any player that featured in Ten Hag’s starting XI. But his pace and movement off ball found him free in the channels to find space and stretch the Tottenham backline when he could as well as rarely dropping deep to receive possession in the way that Ronaldo sometimes does. With his threat regularly further forward, this helped pin Tottenham’s assets back that afforded United the ability to be more dominant both in possession and in the press.
Bruno Fernandes: Standing tall in the face of doubt
There has been a wealth of criticism levied in the direction of Portuguese international creator Bruno Fernandes in recent years, with many claiming that the former Sporting CP man is often a passenger and only turns up in results that are a one-way pile on. But the 28-year-old has looked more and more effective and influential in recent weeks under Ten Hag, and his goal against Spurs was no less than he deserved.
In conjunction with the freedom of movement afforded to both Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho, as well as the more forward-utilized Fred, Fernandes has been able to predominately sit in the space between the midfield and defensive lines in order to get on the ball and then drive play into key avenues of attack.
This was clearly evident by the fact that the Portuguese international - who looks set to play a prominent role for his country at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar - registered a match-high 13 shot-creating actions and a joint-high 5 progressive passes, while his 64 carries were second only to Luke Shaw’s 81, with the England left-back being the only player to touch the ball more than Fernandes (93).
Not to call time yet, Fernandes also earned the joint-second highest xG (0.30) and the joint-highest xA (0.50) for United and added further influence in his performance with the joint-second highest presses (14) and interceptions (3).
This level of influence both when on the ball and also when it comes to adapting to Ten Hag’s demand to press hard and high has done wonders for Fernandes, and though he only has 2 goals and 1 assist on his CV thus far in domestic football in 2022-23, he has been a better version of himself.
Casemiro & Fred: A growing Brazilian midfield duopoly
The summer departures of Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matić to Juventus and AS Roma respectively left United in a bind when it came to their midfield options, especially in the wake of their protracted interest in Barcelona and Netherlands star midfielder Frenkie de Jong hitting a wall that has seen the Ajax academy product remain in Catalunya.
With just Fred, Scott McTominay, and the out-of-favor Donny van de Beek the only central options at Old Trafford, Ten Hag and the club acted swiftly to initially secure Christian Eriksen on a free deal but were made to wait until the dying embers of the summer window before a shock £62m move for Real Madrid’s Brazilian stalwart Casemiro.
A talented holding midfielder long considered to be one of the best in Europe, who has achieved the highest honors possible - multiple times - while at the Santiago Bernabeu, the São Paulo youth academy graduate was justifiably viewed as a signing that would push the needle for the club despite turning 31 just after the World Cup.
Though it took him time to settle in, his start against Spurs was his third in succession in the Premier League, and fifth if you include the Europa League.
United has posted a 4-1-0 record with him in the XI while keeping three clean sheets along the way, and not only did his multi-faceted ability to both sit and shield the center-back pairing of Raphaël Varane and Lisandro Martínez as well as press higher up when needed to play a vital role in the result, it has also shown itself to be able to allow Fred to become a highly-effective roaming midfield presence in a system that is getting the most of his athleticism and versatility.
No one pressed more against Spurs than Fred (21) or earned more blocks (4), while his 6 shots were joint-top with Bruno Fernandes and rounded off an all-action display that would not have been possible without United finally boasting a holding midfielder in Casemiro capable of being positionally and tactically responsible to allow his ability to maraud around the pitch to come to life.
As for Casemiro, he was as effective as ever. When he himself was not pressing or getting forward into the middle third to offer a roving link between attack and defense, the majority of the passages of play saw him sitting comfortably ahead of Varane-Martínez to sweep up any threat that could be found through either Harry Kane or Son Heung-min.
Moreover, his presence in the midfield offered a direct counter to any forward momentum that Rodrigo Bentancur or Pierre-Emile Højbjerg could muster.
In what has become a highly effective midfield tandem for Ten Hag, Fred’s revitalization under the Dutchman in conjunction with his budding partnership alongside his countryman will be one of the more unheralded aspects of the Red Devil’s growing confidence on the pitch.