Erik ten Hag kicked off his tenure as Manchester United manager with a home clash vs Brighton on Sunday afternoon.
Brighton had never beaten Manchester United in their history before Sunday. However, two Pascal Gross efforts ensured that run came to an end in Ten Hag’s first game in charge.
So what went wrong for Manchester United on the day?
Erik ten Hag’s first line-up as Manchester United manager is one that was largely forced upon him.
Anthony Martial picked up an injury in pre-season, leaving Cristian Ronaldo as United’s only natural centre-forward option.
However, the Portuguese has only played 45 minutes of football so far this summer, meaning he was not fit enough to play 90 minutes – something Ten Hag pointed towards pre-match.
This saw Ten Hag opt to play Christian Eriksen up top in a false-nine role. The rest of the XI was pretty standard and suggests that we will see a 4-2-3-1 from the former Ajax boss when Martial is back fit.
This also means we are unlikely to see Bruno Fernandes and Christian Eriksen in the same team too often, with both players expected to compete for the 10 role when United have a natural striker fit enough to start.
Elsewhere, in a rather damming assessment of Donny van de Beek, he couldn’t even make it into the eleven over Fred or Scott McTominay despite previously excelling under Ten Hag at Ajax.
As mentioned above, Ten Hag was forced to start the game without a striker on Sunday. This saw Christian Eriksen operating as a false-nine.
However, Manchester United’s attack was very fluid vs the Seagulls, allowing Fernandes to take up the false-nine role when Eriksen came deeper to collect the ball. We even saw the pair positioned as a sort of front two on occasion.
Elsewhere, Ten Hag instructed Rashford and Sancho to stay wide when United were building play. This was done to stretch Brighton’s back-three and allow United’s forwards to have plenty of space in the opposition box. It also meant Brighton’s central midfielders had to drop deeper and fill the gaps left by the wide centre-backs, which, in turn, led to plenty of United possession.
Further back, meanwhile, Ten Hag instructed Dalot to take up a role similar to that of Joao Cancelo at Manchester City. Every time United had the ball on the left, Dalot pushed high up the pitch in an introverted full-back role.
Ten Hag’s final attempt at overloading the Brighton defence came through Scott McTominay, who often found himself as one of the United players furthest up the pitch when his team had the ball. This left Fred as the sole holding midfielder more often than not.
Expectation vs reality
On paper, Ten Hag’s plan to overload and stretch Brighton’s backline did make a lot of sense.
And, for the first 25 minutes or so, the home outfit dominated the game and had Brighton penned back in their half for large periods.
However, though Ten Hag’s plan was tactically sound, Manchester United’s players simply did not have the quality to execute it.
As already mentioned, Ten Hag wanted McTominay further up the pitch to overload Brighton’s defence and midfield. But on a number of occasions, including for Brighton’s second, the Scotsman lost the ball, leading to Brighton counter attacking.
Fred as the only holding midfielder was also an issue as the Brazilian did not look comfortable on the ball and, like McTominay, gifted Brighton several chances with his poor passing/lack of pressing. Would Frenkie de Jong fit that role better? Erik ten Hag likely thinks so as, after 53 minutes, he subbed off Fred for Cristiano Ronaldo and moved Eriksen into the deep-lying midfield role.
And, to Ten Hag’s credit, Eriksen was a lot more comfortable in this role and his long-range effort led to the corner United scored from.
However, Ten Hag failed to account for Harry Maguire and Lisandro Martinez’s inability to mark Danny Welbeck as well as Diogo Dalot not being able to deal with Leandro Trossard, who often caught the Portuguese sleeping.
Finally, it is obvious that David de Gea is not comfortable playing out from the back. His distribution was poor, and he gave away possession far to often.
So, whilst Ten Hag’s game plan was sound in principle and it was improved by the removal of Fred and the arrival of Ronaldo, it is clear United currently do not have the required players to execute what the Dutchman wants.
With the transfer window still open, the Manchester United boss is no doubt hopeful the club will dip into the market to sign players who suit his system more than this current crop of players.