Sancho right, De Gea sweeping: Five Ten Hag moves more significant than the score

As the ticker tape swirled around Manchester United’s players on a plinth at the Rajamangala Stadium, it was fun to suppose how Erik ten Hag had taken one game to end the club’s run of five years without a trophy.

Anyone getting giddy about United’s 4-0 win over Liverpool in the Bangkok Century Cup was brought down to earth by the man himself, however. “I have seen a lot of mistakes,” Ten Hag said. “Liverpool played three teams, they were not at their strongest. We will not overestimate this result.”

Caveats do not come much larger than Jurgen Klopp changing his entire team every 30 minutes, and fielding several academy players, because Liverpool’s pre-season began a week after United’s. But nevertheless, there were signs that Ten Hag has got through to his players in different ways already, and that has to be encouraging for a new manager. “I have seen some really good things, a lot of speed and creativity up front,” he added.

Here in the Thai capital, as 50,328 fans watched with genuine enthusiasm — some paying as much as 25,000 baht, equivalent to nearly £600 or a month’s salary — The Athletic was able to get a first-hand look at what went right for Ten Hag and pick out five things of most relevance.

Sancho right, Rashford left

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had right wing in mind when signing Jadon Sancho, but various factors saw that plan never quite come to fulfillment. Still, it looks the most natural balance to have Sancho right and Marcus Rashford on his preferred left and that is what Ten Hag chose at his first opportunity.

Both players pressed Liverpool with intensity, Rashford once coming off his wing to chase down Kostas Tsimikas on the opposite flank, and that was where United found their place – forcing Klopp’s team into mistakes.

On the ball, Sancho was having fun, a day after being on the end of Ten Hag’s sharp tongue. At one point he rolled his studs over the ball in midfield to gain space and by the half-hour he was enjoying himself so much he chose a backheel to control Luke Shaw’s crossfield pass.

He was effective too. Only Alisson’s big hand diverted a cross away from Rashford at the far post — the same move had led to a goal in training on Monday — and it was his pressure on Nat Phillips that turned over possession so he could center the ball low. Again Rashford was waiting but his tame shot was blocked.

Perhaps Rashford had in mind the chance he had smashed into the side-netting after Fred’s turnover moments before. He tried to place his second effort. Rashford looked sharp but finding the right finishes would have surely raised his confidence even further.

Man of the match Martial

Anthony Martial finished 2021-22 on the periphery of the Sevilla team, an inauspicious end to a loan that was meant to kickstart his career. He seemed transformed against Liverpool, giving the kind of display United coaching staff have wished for since he bullied Manchester City at the Etihad in March 2021.

This came against a second-tier Liverpool defense, but it was still refreshing to see Martial put down the accelerator when chances arose. For his goal, chipped with trademark delicacy, he pounced on Rhys Williams with an intensity Solskjaer tried to instill on a regular basis. Whether Ten Hag can achieve that remains to be seen, but his brand of hands-on coaching may be more powerful than Martial has experienced before. He is 26 now, so he must take responsibility too.

United came into this summer open to offers for Martial, but Cristiano Ronaldo’s absence on this tour has opened the door for the Frenchman to make a push to be an important part of Ten Hag’s attack.

Martial did walk off the pitch at half-time grimacing and holding his hip, after sitting out some of the training on Monday, so Ten Hag will hope he is not injured.

Fernandez and Fred find a groove

We know Bruno Fernandes is risk-and-reward with his passes. We know Fred can shut down space for opponents as well as leave the midfield unguarded. Both were well balanced in those aspects against Liverpool.

Fernandes struck one pass from Luke Shaw’s throw-in first-time over his shoulder, in the way he can do wildly to concede possession. This time the ball went nicely to Sancho.

Fernandes again switched play to Sancho later, with a pass that didn’t seem on, even up in the press box. Fernandes somehow saw that a flat pass through the middle of Liverpool’s defense, rather than angled out to the wing, would allow Sancho to run onto the ball.

Fernandes appeared fraught at times last season, but when confident he is a real asset to United, and he looks refreshed from his break.

Liverpool did break on a few occasions in the opening 30 minutes, but the prevailing mood was that United, with Fred busy, had the edge. He won the ball high up for Rashford’s chance – in the same way he did away to Villarreal last season for Ronaldo’s goal – and he generally got higher than the training session on Monday suggested he would. At times he dropped deep, once in a back three, but he was useful in the final third, where his anticipation was tuned in. His goal was of course inspired, joyful brilliance, but more rudimentarily he had to be there in the first place when the ball broke loose.

De Gea a greater distance off his line

David de Gea kept United’s clean sheet with a sequence of top saves, but that is standard now. More notable was the frequency with which he came out of his goal. Early in the first half, De Gea ran all the way out of his area to intercept a long Liverpool pass that momentarily looked dangerous and shortly after the break he sprinted to the nearby touchline to put the ball out of play, with young striker Bobby Clark closing down rapidly. Liverpool took a quick throw-in but Tyrell Malacia was on hand to block.

De Gea played further off his line – but also went off injured (Photo: Pakawich Damrongkiattisak/Getty Images)

De Gea was also alert to a pass to Darwin Nunez, coming out quickly to claim but hurting himself in the process and signaling to come off.

Nevertheless, it seems Ten Hag has given De Gea clear instructions to be more assertive so that the defense can play a higher line and forwards press further up. It is not the Spaniard’s natural game and maybe when the real action starts that will be exposed. But a key pillar of Ten Hag’s approach was evident in Bangkok.

Iqbal and Savage hold their own

Zidane Iqbal and Charlie Savage both made their United debuts in the Champions League against Young Boys and this was another opportunity for them to grasp. Sent on at half-time, after doing a box drill under the guidance of Eric Ramsay and the eight other outfield changes during the break, Iqbal and Savage performed impressively against what ended up being Liverpool’s best midfield. For 30 minutes they competed with Thiago, Fabinho and Naby Keita.

Neither have been players the academy would say were nailed on for the first team but they both work hard in training and deserve their places on this tour.

Iqbal constantly offered for the ball in tight spaces and kept possession with simple choices. He looked smooth. He also set Anthony Elanga up with a smart pass over the top, although the offside flag went up.

Savage fizzed his passes accurately and his left-footedness can be an asset after the departures of Nemanja Matic and Juan Mata. He got so comfortable he even completed a Maradona turn.

It is likely that both will go out on loan this season, but both have the chance to show Ten Hag that they are worth keeping around the first-team picture.

(Photo: Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)


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