It was one of the lowest points in Manchester United’s modern history. Their players slinked back to the dressing room trailing Brentford by four goals and Erik ten Hag looked set to be swamped by the scale of his rebuilding mission.
If the Bees could destroy United so easily, it didn’t bear thinking about what the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool would do to them.
But fast forward three weeks and United look a team transformed. Liverpool were beaten against all odds and early Premier League pace-setters Arsenal as well, not to mention Southampton and Leicester inbetween.
Erik ten Hag waves to the Old Trafford stands after Manchester United beat Arsenal on Sunday
United produced a stunning display of counter-attacking football to record another win
It’s all a far cry from United’s disastrous 4-0 defeat to Brentford in their second game
The latest three points lifted United to fifth in the Premier League, three points off the top
Sunday’s performance was the best yet under Ten Hag, an exhibition of counter-attacking in the best United tradition combined with a new-found defensive resilience that seems to have come out of nowhere.
The four straight wins have bred confidence within a team that looks settled, understand what their manager requires of them and are beginning to show signs of an identity.
We take a closer look here at how Ten Hag has successfully turned around United’s shambolic opening to the campaign.
MARTINEZ AND VARANE ARE SOLID AS A ROCK
When Ben Mee completely dominated Lisandro Martinez to head home Brentford’s third goal on that fateful afternoon, plenty questioned whether the £55million arrival could cope with English football.
Much was made of his height – a mere 5ft 9in – and how he looked destined to be bullied by every Premier League striker.
But Ten Hag’s decision to hook Martinez for Raphael Varane at half-time on that afternoon didn’t prove to be fatal for the Argentine’s chances of holding down a starting place.
Instead, Ten Hag made the big call to drop captain Harry Maguire for the Liverpool game and to partner Martinez and Varane together instead. It might well prove the defining moment in United’s season.
Diogo Dalot and Lisandro Martinez chest bump as Raphael Varane looks on against Leicester
As Maguire has watched on from the bench, they have formed a solid and reliable partnership. Martinez has proved his worth with plenty of tenacity and quite a few aerial clearances, overcoming those initial wobbles.
Varane is showing the positioning and ball-winning ability that won him the World Cup with France and four Champions League titles with Real Madrid. He only showed glimpses last season but is performing more consistently now.
Having conceded six goals in their opening two games to Brighton and Brentford, there was a pressing need to fix United’s leaky defence and get the entire team on a firm footing.
Martinez clatters Arsenal forward Gabriel Jesus during Sunday’s victory at Old Trafford
United’s season so far
August 7 Brighton (H) 1-2
August 13 Brentford (A) 0-4
August 22 Liverpool (H) 2-1
August 27 Southampton (A) 1-0
September 1 Leicester City (A) 1-0
September 4 Arsenal (H) 3-1
Ten Hag appears to have found the right central defensive combination and two of those four wins since the Brentford loss have been accompanied by very welcome clean sheets.
Even more satisfying is how much it means to these United defenders to make a crucial tackle or block a goalbound shot – we’ve seen chest bumps and a lot of back slapping from Martinez, Varane, Diogo Dalot and others.
RASHFORD AND SANCHO HAVE CONFIDENCE RESTORED
Sunday’s win over Arsenal was arguably United’s best display of counter-attacking football since they thrashed RB Leipzig 5-0 in November 2020, just when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer looked to be getting them back to their best.
The common theme between the two games is Marcus Rashford – he scored a superb treble that night and got two goals against Arsenal, twice rounding off quick breaks that sliced Arsenal’s defence open.
While Mikel Arteta played right into United’s hands by making attacking substitutions that pushed their defensive line ever further forward and disrupted their momentum, the return of United’s classic counter-attacking thrilled fans.
Last season, Rashford may well have missed the one-on-one opportunity against Aaron Ramsdale that restored United’s lead at a time when Arsenal were well in the ascendancy.
Marcus Rashford, who scored twice on Sunday, is looking back to his electrifying best
In the wake of his Euro 2020 final penalty miss, the toxic social media fall-out from it and his shoulder surgery, Rashford looked a shadow of his former self in United’s attack, scoring only four goals all season.
Now is only one goal shy of matching that tally just six games into the current season and has clearly seen his confidence restored by Ten Hag. With a World Cup approaching, he may well force his way back into the England squad.
It helps that there is currently some certainty about Rashford’s role. With Cristiano Ronaldo benched, Rashford is again leading the line having been shunted out wide by previous United managers.
Confidence is flooding through the game of Jadon Sancho as well after a rather indifferent first season at Old Trafford.
Jadon Sancho rounds the goalkeeper to score United’s winner at Leicester on Thursday night
He scored the winner at Leicester on Thursday night, having the assurance to round goalkeeper Danny Ward and slot home in one fluid motion after Rashford slipped him through.
That was his second of the campaign already – he opened the scoring in the win over Liverpool with a composed finish – and that confidence to run at opposition defenders and make perfectly-timed darts is evidently back in his game.
It’s to Ten Hag’s credit that since the Brentford defeat, he seems to have lifted a weight from the shoulders of attackers who have looked burdened for far too long.
ERIKSEN LOOKS AN INSPIRED SIGNING
There was always a danger the signing of Christian Eriksen this summer would be overshadowed by the £85.5m spent on Antony and the £70m lavished on Casemiro.
Not a bit of it. The Dane has been outstanding in United red so far, slotting in perfectly to central midfield and serving as the ideal link man between defence and attack.
As Martin Tyler observed on Sky Sports commentary on Sunday afternoon, not even Arsenal fans could begrudge Eriksen his excellent performance against them.
Christian Eriksen was excellent as United beat Arsenal and is proving to be a great signing
Eriksen played a hand in all three goals with his quick-thinking to bypass the Arsenal midfield and get United moving for Antony’s opener a particular highlight.
Covering acres of ground, Eriksen willingly mucked in with defensive work before charging through to square to Rashford for the game-killing third.
He looks comfortable with Scott McTominay alongside him and you’d expect the same if it was Casemiro or Fred in there. He has quickly struck up a great understanding with Bruno Fernandes ahead of him.
It was thought that the 30-year-old, given what happened with his cardiac arrest at last year’s Euros, would be a bit-part player used by Ten Hag mainly off the bench.
That uncomfortable afternoon at Brentford aside, Eriksen has suggested he is worth a lot more to United and their manager than that and you certainly wouldn’t drop him right now.
Casemiro cost United £70million but may have his work cut out to win a midfield place
MCTOMINAY COULD WELL COMPETE WITH CASEMIRO
During the Alex Ferguson years, matches against Arsenal were often highlights of the season and where tenacious players like Phil Neville, Darren Fletcher and Park Ji-Sung took the plaudits.
McTominay continued that tradition brilliantly on Sunday as the midfielder didn’t give Arsenal’s attackers a moment’s peace and helped Martinez and Varane out with clearances on the ground and in the air.
Ten Hag has realised that the Scot’s height is an asset and good cover for Martinez as the Argentine properly beds in to English football.
McTominay, who many expected to drop out the side when Casemiro arrived, has made the strongest possible case to remain in there and his tireless efforts are always appreciated by United fans.
Arsenal have been in free-flowing form so far this season and United required a midfield disruptor like McTominay to get the better of them, even if it took a tactical foul.
Scott McTominay was a pain in the side of Arsenal all afternoon in a tenacious midfield display
One stat stood out when illustrating how confidence has been restored at United since that opening day loss to Brighton.
McTominay only completed two-thirds of his passes that afternoon. Against Arsenal, his pass completion was 100 per cent.
All of which gives Ten Hag a dilemma. He now has McTominay, Casemiro, Fred and Eriksen to cram into two midfield berths, a luxury of choice few expected when Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic departed over the summer.
Thank goodness for the start of the UEFA Europa League group phase to make the fixture calendar even more hectic!
FERNANDES IS IN SPARKLING FORM
Too often a huffing, puffing and remonstrating figure last season, Bruno Fernandes is another figure who has benefitted from Ten Hag coming in and the bold decisions made by the Dutch coach.
Though he scored 10 goals and claimed a further 14 assists last season, it was painfully clear that his game was affected by the presence of his Portugal team-mate Ronaldo.
With Ronaldo starting on the bench at the moment, Fernandes has returned to something approaching the form he showed when Solskjaer first signed him in January 2020.
Fernandes gets a hug from David de Gea after another impressive showing on Sunday
His work rate against Arsenal was notable, also his willingness to track back and help the defence. Fernandes also played a key role in the move for Antony’s opener and supplied an exquisite pass for Rashford to net United’s second.
The way he deftly finished to score the decisive goal at Southampton the weekend before offered up more evidence of a player getting back to his best.
It’s crucial United sustain this and also important that Fernandes and Ronaldo find a way of linking up because the 37-year-old will get a run of games again at some stage and they can’t be treading on one another’s toes.
Fernandes is smiling again and enjoying playing football for United as he did in that first season-and-a-half at Old Trafford before it all went downhill.
There was a point when Ten Hag summoned Fernandes and Eriksen to the touchline to explain some tactical instructions he’d scribbled on a notepad. A little bit of restored trust and responsibility can go a long way.
Half-an-hour later and Fernandes was embracing David de Gea and Anthony Elanga as he left the pitch victorious.
Ten Hag imparts tactical instructions to Eriksen and Fernandes during the win over Arsenal
EVEN RONALDO IS PRESSING FROM THE FRONT
One of the most surprising sights on Sunday was Cristiano Ronaldo chasing down Arsenal defenders and leading from the front when it came to the pressing Ten Hag puts so much store in.
It was the first sign we’ve seen that he is buying in to how the new manager wants United to play and dispelled a lot of fan fears.
Antony showed his love for Ronaldo on Instagram after the Portuguese stood and applauded his debut goal
Maybe it’s the effect of starting four consecutive games among the substitutes. Warming the bench isn’t something Ronaldo is accustomed to and when he got on for the final 30-odd minutes he had something to prove.
Now the transfer window is closed and he’s at United until at least January, the professionalism in Ronaldo’s character has kicked in and he’ll be fully committed to the cause.
In fact, United’s afternoon could only have been capped by Ronaldo scoring his first of the season, something that would have happened had someone other than Fred played the cross-field pass that sprung him clear in the dying minutes.
No matter, Ronaldo had done more than enough to show he has a big role to play this season and the more pressing he does, the bigger role Ten Hag will give him.
The delight on Ronaldo’s face as he stood up in the dug-out to applaud Antony’s well-taken first goal for United was another good sign too.
Antony responded on his Instagram stories, posting a picture of the moment Ronaldo replaced him on 58 minutes with the caption: ‘Idol’.
Ronaldo pressed from the front as he affirmed his commitment to Ten Hag’s way of playing
MALACIA LOOKS A FINE SIGNING
It was evident even during United’s pre-season tour that Tyrell Malacia, who cost £13m from Feyenoord, could prove a handy signing.
His crossing was on point, his tackling effective and it was immediately obvious that Luke Shaw would have some serious competition for the left-back spot.
So it has proved, with Malacia playing every minute since he replaced the lacklustre Shaw halfway through that disastrous evening at Brentford.
Shaw was once again an unused sub against Arsenal and he looks destined for Europa League football only for the time being.
Tyrell Malacia looks to have nailed down the left-back position ahead of Luke Shaw
Mind you, Malacia did find Bukayo Saka a handful, leaving him free for Arsenal’s goal, and there were appeals for a penalty following a clumsy challenge late on.
But he has shown enough in the opening weeks of the season to suggest he can hold down the left-back spot, just as Dalot looks increasingly at home on the other side.
ERRORS HAVE BEEN STAMPED OUT
The most miserable moment of that Brentford defeat came when Martinez took a goal kick to David de Gea, who played it out to Eriksen not far out but under pressure from Mathias Jensen, who gleefully accepted the gift.
All 11 of United’s players touched the ball in the build-up to Antony’s opening goal
From that moment, Ten Hag abandoned the instruction for United to pass out from defence. In the Liverpool game, to bypass their notoriously effective press, De Gea was instructed to kick long every time.
It had the desired effect and though, in time, Ten Hag no doubt will want United to pass from back to front, he at least realised the players weren’t up to it right now and more work was needed on the training ground.
Mind you, they can do something like that because the build-up to Antony’s goal involved a touch from all 11 United players and 18 passes.
There’s nothing worse than a stubborn manager who doesn’t address glaringly obvious mistakes being made by his players.
Not only have United enhanced their work rate, are passing more smoothly and are taking chances clinically but they’ve cut out the silly errors that cost them at the beginning of the campaign.
As the season now enters a hectic schedule prior to the World Cup, Ten Hag will only hope this winning form continues.