And little wonder. The Red Devils rolled back the years to the glory days of Keane’s era, when aggression, graft and guile ignited the crowd and made Old Trafford a fearful arena for visiting teams.
Rarely in recent years has this disaffected club looked so, well, united and United. But last night, coach, players and fans, (despite the pre-match protests against the Glazer family), became perfectly aligned again and together they overwhelmed their rivals.
Erik ten Hag’s side improved in almost all aspects against Liverpool at Old Trafford
‘They’ve gone back to basics, they’ve been aggressive and stretched Liverpool,’ the former midfielder purred.
‘They look sharp, really fresh,’ he told Sky Sports.’With Liverpool, there’s gaps everywhere. [Man Utd] are making Liverpool look average.’
In past eight days, Erik ten Hag liberated his players from the shadow of underperformance and the shame of their 4-0 humiliation at Brentford last time out to somehow re-energise them.
He sharpened their competitive instinct, so they played, if not yet with a swagger, then at least a snarl, which was epitomised in every moment by Lisandro Martinez and has always been a feature of the best United sides.
Former Manchester United midfielder Roy Keane liked what he saw from his old club
Keane played in an era of huge success for United in which aggression and guile were required
Keane, Gary Neville, Jaap Stam, Nemanja Vidic and Eric Cantona were never nice to play against. They let opponents know they had arrived at the Theatre of Dreams, and for many it turned into a nightmare.
On top of that, the Dutchman changed his own approach, moving away from a possession-based build up, to a kore direct game, which suited his players and this occasion perfectly. This was a tactical masterclass from ten Hag.
The long game…
In pre-season, the cameras caught ten Hag berating his goalkeeper, David de Gea, for going long with a clearance, when he could have played short.
During the 3-1 win against Crystal Palace, de Gea cleared his lines while Charlie Savage failed to show for the short option. Ten Hag was heard screaming: ‘What the f*** are you doing?’
Last night, there was no confusion: De Gea was going long.
David de Gea was allowed to play long passes against Liverpool, rather than pass out
The goalkeeper launched the ball 35 times against Liverpool, compared to nine long passes against Brentford and eight in the home defeat to Brighton on the opening weekend.
It must have challenged ten Hag to go against his principles and U-turn on his previous instructions. However, pragmatism in a manager is a strength, even if it is sometimes portrayed as weakness, and so it proved here.
In their first two games, United were repeatedly caught in possession deep inside their defensive third. They simply do not have the players, in goal or in midfield, to play that game.
But by launching the ball forwards, they not only negated one of Liverpool’s greatest strengths, the press, they also turned those long passes into possession high up the field through the endeavour of Marcus Rashford and his midfield colleagues,
Tuck in the full backs…
United’s performance against Liverpool was a victory for old-fashioned values: The defenders defended and the attackers attacked.
As Keane said, ‘back to basics’.
The positional map reveals that United’s defence sat deeper against Liverpool than it did in the previous Premier League defeats and the full backs, Tyrell Malacia and Diogo Dalot, were less advanced. Their average position was firmly within their own half of the pitch.
United’s Diogo Dalot put in a solid performance at right back against Liverpool’s Luis Diaz
And Lisandro Martinez pushed up and chased Liverpool forwards deep into the midfield
The aim – and the result – was to nullify the threats of Salah and Luis Diaz on the wings with both full backs diligent in their defensive work. Dalot, in particular, took the fight to Diaz.
Another notable difference was that Martinez played higher. With pace in the back line (in the absence of club captain Harry Maguire, who was left on the bench), the Argentine could step up and he regularly chased Firmino and Salah back into midfield to deny Liverpool an attacking platform inside their own half.
In fact, he dumped Salah on the Old Trafford turf after just 35 seconds leaving his shoulder in for good measure as the pair confronted each other afterwards.
Liverpool struggled to keep the ball when they sought to penetrate United’s defensive lines and Scott McTominay, Christian Eriksen, and later, Fred, snaffled up the scraps in the congested central areas.
As a team, United played much deeper against Liverpool, with their full-backs tucking in and defending, with number six, Martinez, pushed up compared to his previous performance
Against Brentford, Martinez was deeper compared to his defensive partner and the full backs were higher, their average position being in the opposition half
Similarly, against Brighton, United played further forwards and their full backs pushed on more
A red tide…
United lost nothing in attack by asking their full backs to defend. In fact, ten Hag made a virtue of it.
By sitting deep United invited Liverpool to push forwards and when the home side recovered the ball, they played quick, vertical passes.
With Liverpool’s own full backs typically high up the pitch, the rejuvenated Rashford looked for the gaps in behind them, isolating Joe Gomez and Virgil van Dijk and dragging them around.
The positional graphic shows that Marcus Rashford (r) and Anthony Elanga targeted Trent Alexander-Arnold down Liverpool’s right-hand side
Even as Liverpool began to dominate possession, they always looked more vulnerable than their canny opponents.
The pace of Anthony Elanga and Jadon Sancho, coupled with progressive runs of Bruno Fernandes created a red tide that Liverpool struggled to withstand and it was no surprise when they finally conceded in the 16th minute having failed to regain their shape following a break away that led to a sustained attack. Jadon Sancho’s cool finish made it 1-0.
Rashford bagged a well-deserved second for his side on 53 minutes, after the visitors’ central defenders were left exposed again following a quick break.
Targeting Trent Alexander Arnold….
Trent Alexander-Arnold is a fantastic player, but he had a torrid evening at Old Trafford, particularly in the first half when he and his team mates appeared to be taken aback by the intent and intensity of United.
The positional map shows how ten Hag set out to exploit Alexander-Arnold’s high position, with Rashford and Elanga combining to make his life a misery.
Elanga bypassed the full-back, following a neat one-two, when he set up the first goal for Sancho.
The Liverpool defender may well feel he should have had more support, but the visitors’ inability to gain control in midfield meant they were often back pedalling and at times, it felt like every many for himself.
Elanga caused problems during the first half and assisted Jadon Sancho for the first goal
Breaking the Ronaldo hoodoo…
Last season, United were routinely and fairly criticised for a lack of coherence in their play when the opposition had the ball.
But last night they were cohesive and well drilled. They employed an energetic press, led by Rashford, with Fernandes, Eriksen and Sancho cutting off the passing lanes, backed up by McTominay, who maintained his positional discipline in front of the back four.
It is notable that those players dominated United’s statistics for ball recoveries. cutting off the supply to Liverpool’s attack.
Cristiano Ronaldo was on the bench for the match against Liverpool, making a late appearance
There was rarely a situation in which a Liverpool player was able to bear down on the United back line with his head up. The gap between defence and midfield was just too narrow; United were too compact.
And there was simply a lot more running. In fact, the Red Devils ran a whole 19km more than the previous week at Brentford which saw them slip to the foot of the league table.
Erik ten Hag’s side ran a 95.6km then, as opposed to 113.8km on Monday evening.
Behind this success, of course, lay arguably ten Hag’s biggest decision. By dropping Ronaldo for Rashford, the Dutchman could build pressure on defenders and set traps, which snapped shut on Liverpool’s attacks time and again, enabling United to recover possession in good areas.
This performance may prove to be a blueprint for future success, particularly if ten Hag’s latest attempt to secure the services of ball player, Frenkie de Jong, fails.
But perhaps even more important, ten Hag has broken the hoodoo that has surrounded Ronaldo. Regardless of what goes on behind the scenes, that circus has been distracting.
The coach has surely now established the importance of the team above the individual, the value of tactical discipline and he must have secured the trust of his players, who enjoyed a memorable night. United may finally be able to move forwards.
Victory over Liverpool was a tactical and motivational triumph for manager Erik ten Hag