Ten Hag Gets His Four Big Calls Right As Manchester United beat Liverpool
Old Trafford was resplendent after a lick of paint brightened the scarlet red of the stadium on the outside and inside the only danger to the leaky roof was of it coming off.
Whether it is the pre or post-Sir Alex Ferguson Manchester United, the eruption that greeted Jadon Sancho’s intricate opening goal is one of the most deafening in the stadium’s 112-year history.
In these fallow times, only Scott McTominay’s derby clincher in March 2020 rivals it. United thought they were back that day. On this day, they fought back.
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They played ‘Glory glory Man United at half-time’. If that was premature, it was warranted at full-time as Erik ten Hag glanced up the floodlights that brightened his full-beam smile.
This was classic underdog United; intense and in-your-face. They took Liverpool on at their own game, backed by an angry mob of matchgoers who channeled their own abhorrence of the Glazer family’s ownership and the tribalism of the occasion into a first victory for Ten Hag.
“We’ll never die,” they chorused at full-time, celebrating fouls in stoppage-time with all the gusto of a goal flying in. “Oh United, we love you,” they roared. After a loveless afternoon at Brentford, it returned.
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True to the cliché their greatest manager coined, they did not make it easy for themselves, conceding in the last 10 minutes to Mohamed Salah to ensure there would be no mass exodus on a night some aimed to empty the ground.
It was a performance reminiscent of the victories Ten Hag’s permanent predecessor had a knack for whenever he was under the cosh. Ten Hag has been complicit in United’s soulless start to the new campaign yet against their fiercest foes he gained a sense of belonging in this “hell of a job”.
“Ten Hag’s Red and White Army” United fans rocked as the 90th minute loomed. He had no hesitation in accepting the crowd’s acclaim prior to kick-off.
This was the moment Ten Hag confronted issues in his squad. Cristiano Ronaldo and Harry Maguire, a curious dressing room power struggle, was rendered moot as both were benched. That was a masterstroke, for Raphael Varane demonstrated how perverse it was he was ever considered a substitute centre-back, using one stoppage to increase the volume.
Lisandro Martinez barged into Salah in the first minute and eased James Milner into the pitchside ditch. Diminutive Martinez was the model centre-back against Liverpool’s startled attackers.
Tyrell Malacia, the first summer signing, was an athletic upgrade on Luke Shaw. Martinez calmly savoured Marcus Rashford’s breakaway goal until he encountered Malacia, whose face he grabbed so tightly he seemed like he was about to kiss him.
Anthony Elanga assisted Sancho yet was hooked at the pause in a tactical change for the returning Anthony Martial. It was Martial who sprung Rashford through to make it two.
United targeted the defensive frailties of Trent Alexander-Arnold, both of their goals a consequence of exposing his dithering in his own third. The presence of Rashford, responsible for United’s previous Premier League win over Liverpool in March 2018, appeared to give the haunted Alexander-Arnold flashbacks.
The togetherness was evident on the touchline, where Maguire advised while he limbered up, a possible benefit of United changing dugouts for second halves where they favour attacking the Stretford End.
Like the last acquisition from Real Madrid, Casemiro strode onto the pitch for an unveiling once only reserved for Bryan Robson. The contrast in mood was markedly different; appreciative applause as opposed to the euphoric roar the Stretford End elicited when Raphael Varane emerged from the tunnel in his three-piece suit a year ago.
Pitchside and in the stands, there were reminders of the glory years: Schmeichel., Pallister, Neville, Stam, Keane, Robson. John O’Shea has enough medals to merit a mini museum and Dion Dublin got his hands on the double.
Keane greeted Casemiro enthusiastically, two midfield heavyweights and serial winners expressing mutual admiration for the other. United coped commendably without their new £70million acquisition. Ronaldo interrupted his warm-up to reunite with Neville and Keane while they were live on camera, his two teammates noticeably awestruck.
If this was Ronaldo’s final outing at Old Trafford – and all it amounted to was a brief cameo – he leaves with his legendary status unblemished. The Stretford Enders gratefully serenaded him.
“You’re just a s–t Casemiro,” the United fans taunted the departing Jordan Henderson, who just about resisted replying to those stood offering some sign language in the south stand. Jurgen Klopp became so narked at one stage he berated Salah.
The muggy night air was thick with cordite from the green and yellow flares smuggled through the turnstiles and the atmosphere raucous. The United matchgoers’ antipathy towards the Glazer family – expressed through their sinister song about co-chairman Joel – also fuelling their hatred of Liverpool.
The Scousers brandished fliers of Avram Glazer and repeatedly chanted “Up the Glazers”. That intensified the bilious baiting, with United fans stooping to the low of airing the infamous song about Hillsborough.
Sancho’s unflappable 16th-minute opener was executed as though he was back on a five-a-side pitch in South London. He did not hesitate in making a beeline for the hushed Liverpool fans, swiftly backed by jubilant teammates.
The goal marked vindication for Ten Hag and atonement for Elanga, provider of the pass moments after he slotted against the post with Alisson vainly diving in the opposite direction. Christian Eriksen’s composure in waiting for Elanga’s overlap was more laudable than the assist.
The visiting fans, officially ‘welcomed’ by the signs on their entrance to the stadium, mustered a spontaneous rendition of “You’re supposed to be outside”. Old Trafford was never going to be sparse for British football’s biggest game. They were mum for almost the entirety of the second-half until Salah pounced on the rebound to fuel hope of an equaliser.
It did not come and they traipsed out with ‘Glory glory Man United’ ringing around the stadium.