Not long after the final whistle had sounded on Manchester United’s win at Leicester City in midweek, a clip started doing the rounds. Taken from the 26th minute, lasting 10 seconds, it showed an eight-pass move during the build-up phase of possession.
Anthony Elanga lays a pass to Diogo Dalot, who picks out Christian Eriksen inside. Lisandro Martinez then comes under pressure but lifts the ball to Bruno Fernandes, whose flicked backheel is weighted just right to find the feet of Tyrell Malacia. United’s new left back lays it back to Eriksen, who goes back to Martinez again. A first-time pass out to the left wing is dummied by Malacia and collected by Fernandes, who is in acres of space and advances into Leicester’s half.
It all came to nothing – just a speculative shot from distance by Eriksen that was comfortably held – but those eight passes were made on the edge of United’s own penalty area while under sustained Leicester pressure. It was the most ambitious attempt to play out from the back by a United side in recent memory – a successful attempt, too – and the most aesthetically pleasing piece of evidence so far to suggest that Erik ten Hag’s work on the training ground is beginning to bear fruit.
It was also nothing like the moves for the goals that have now delivered a pair of signature Old Trafford victories for Ten Hag over two of United’s oldest rivals.
After sucker-punching Liverpool to their first defeat in 22 league games a fortnight ago, United did the same to an Arsenal side that arrived having won five in five but left with a moral victory, at best. With 16 shots to United’s 10, and after falling on the right side of a 60-40 split in possession, Mikel Arteta was disappointed not to extend their perfect start and felt the performance of his players deserved more.
“We had some big periods where we were totally dominant. The game was there for the taking,” he lamented. “To play the way we do [here] today, I want to see how many teams do this season.”
Yet Arsenal lost, United won and it would be harsh to suggest that result was not in some way deserved. The three goals – the first by debutant Antony, the decisive second and third from Marcus Rashford – came through fast, direct counterattacking that brilliantly exposed Arteta’s admirable insistence on both pressing with intensity and operating with a high defensive line, leaving space in behind for United’s pacey, new-look attack to break into.
It was all a bit similar to the style of play that United had success with against “big six” opponents under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Back then, this reactive approach was usually viewed as evidence of Solskjaer’s limitations as a coach. The Norwegian’s propensity to pull a big game result out of the bag after underwhelming in a string of matches United should be winning became the stuff of parody. It was unsustainable, we said, even as it kept sustaining itself.
None of the same criticisms have been levelled at Ten Hag after these two big Old Trafford wins, even though United had far less of the ball than both Liverpool and Arsenal. Even in the victories over Southampton and Leicester, the share of possession was only roughly even. In fact, the only games in which United have dominated the ball this season were those opening defeats to Brighton and Brentford – seeing 63 and 67 per cent possession respectively.
There is a tendency to categorise Ten Hag’s tactics as press-and-possess, given his association with Ajax and his stint working under Pep Guardiola. That is not entirely inaccurate. That was his approach in Amsterdam and there is no doubt of the direction of travel at United under his management to a more expansive style of play, as demonstrated by that eight pass move in Leicester that had the internet purring.
If United’s four straight wins have revealed anything though, it is that Ten Hag is far more pragmatic than popularly imagined. In an often-quoted interview with De Telegraaf, conducted after his first Eredivisie win with Ajax in 2019, he clearly stated: “The qualities of the players determine the system, not the other way around.”
That has been in evidence since Brentford, whether it is David de Gea kicking long, the defensive line operating a little deeper than expected or – against Liverpool and Arsenal in particular – the Solskjaer-esque counterattacking that suits the squad at Ten Hag’s disposal, as demonstrated by the goals on Sunday.
United’s first was the least direct of the three, coming at the end of a spell of unbroken possession, but the move for the goal only really began when the ball had to be played all the way back to De Gea. From that point, it took just seven passes to put Antony in position to finish.
The move that preceded Rashford’s first was shorter still, three passes from back to front. Another three-pass move sent Christian Eriksen clear in behind to tee up Rashford’s tap-in for the second.
This is not Ten Hag’s final vision of what he wants United to be. That much is clear from his answers to every other question in press conferences. “We’re at the start of a process,” he reiterated post-match on Sunday. “We’re still far away. We have to get doing things much better than we do. That’s an investment. We have to do that way together, every day, bring those high standards to Carrington. We have to get better if you want to win trophies in the end.”
Top clubs win by dominating the ball and their opponents. There is still a long way to go, still a lot of room for improvement. But while United are in the process of learning new tricks, they can still get up to their old ones too.