Christian Eriksen’s ‘free eight’ role giving clarity to Ten Hag’s Manchester United
Christian Eriksen’s ‘free eight’ role giving clarity to Ten Hag’s Manchester United

Study Erik Ten Hag’s interviews for long enough and you will note he tends to say “it’s clear” when answering a question.

The Manchester United manager’s preferred response comes from the Dutch phrase “duidelijk”, which can mean “obviously” or “as plain as day”. “Duidelijk” is how Ten Hag buys himself extra thinking time before he figures out the best way to answer a question. The United manager wants to be coherent in his answers to any challenge asked of him.

Christian Eriksen is Ten Hag’s “duidelijk” safety net made flesh. He provides extra thinking time for all the United players around him.

United came out 3-1 victors in a dizzying clash with Arsenal yesterday. New signing Antony scored and brought plenty of attacking brio to his United debut. Marcus Rashford netted a thrilling brace, reminding everyone how dangerous he can be when running behind defences.

Diogo Dalot continued his good run of form — his past four appearances in a United shirt have been the best games of his club career. Next to him in defence, Lisandro Martinez, Raphael Varane and Tyrell Malacia got on with the dirty work — they are a trio who may not win every tackle but appear to be enjoying the act of making their tackles.

A look at the highlights may lead one to think this was a counter-attacking performance out of the book of Jose Mourinho or Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s United wins over Arsenal, but there was a structure to the spectacle. Ten Hag’s United are still a work in progress (in the manager’s words), but they are demonstrating the beginnings of certain automatisms (a phrase Ten Hag used before victory over Leicester that has origins in German football) that will form the bedrock of their season.

Eriksen is proving crucial to all this, operating as a “free eight” ahead of deepest midfielder Scott McTominay (who was also impressive and aggressive against Arsenal) and progressing the ball from deep as well as making key passes into the final third.

United’s first goal comes from Eriksen making a pass to Bruno Fernandes that takes three Arsenal players out of the game.

It is not a pass every United player can make (and many recent United midfielders would avoid), but it set off a series of events that led to Fernandes playing in Jadon Sancho, who would pass to Rashford before the assist was made to Antony.

In the second half, with the score 1-1 and the game delicately poised, it was Eriksen who provided the simple pass to Fernandes, who played in the excellent ball for Rashford to chase and score.

And in the 75th minute, it was Eriksen who first spotted the attacking opportunity to run in behind Arsenal’s defence…

Before getting onto the ball and providing an assist for Rashford.

When Eriksen was signed on a free transfer this summer, few expected him to play this many minutes for United, but he has become a vital change gear for Ten Hag’s attack. He provides clarity in possession for a team that has previously looked disordered, even in their better moments.

“We put him a little more down on the pitch,” said Ten Hag after the game, referring to the Dane’s deeper position. “Like a six, eight role, he has a lot of freedom, he has to interchange with the spaces where he has to be and the rest have to adapt to that.

“He can make a game for you, make the switch of play, he sees a pass between the lines, make the final pass and go into attack to score a goal. He can improve his defence, when he plays like today one small mistake, we’ll give him that, he played a magnificent game.”

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That small mistake came in the 11th minute, when Eriksen was dispossessed by Arsenal’s Martin Odegaard, leading to a goal for Gabriel Martinelli. VAR saved Eriksen’s blushes, believing the Arsenal captain to have fouled Eriksen in the attacking move, but his relative defensive weaknesses are something Ten Hag will have to be aware of.

On the ball, Eriksen is proving integral to United progressing from their penalty area to the opposition’s, but he is not perfect for this role. Few players are. So long as United want to send multiple bodies forward for attacking moves, they will be vulnerable if the man who plays the “pass before the pass” losses the ball around the halfway line. The (slower than expected) integration of Casemiro into the first team will help with that issue, allowing Eriksen to focus on keeping United ticking.

One player benefiting from the Dane’s hard work is Fernandes. United’s matchday captain no longer has to drop as deep to help with ball progression, and Eriksen’s more measured approach to ball retention means United are slowly increasing the time they sustain attacking pressure.

“Bruno Fernandes gets support (when Eriksen plays). He can also pass the final ball and receive the final ball — they really suit each other,” added Ten Hag.

It is now four victories for his side, the longest winning run for United since March-April 2021. They are getting better, slowly but surely. A packed September-October schedule, balancing Europa League and Premier League duties await.

“You feel that in the team, you feel it as a player on the training pitch and in the games,” added Eriksen at full-time. “We’re starting to understand each other, to know where to pass the ball, where to stand, so it makes it easier.”

Ten Hag’s United are climbing up the table and playing with a clarity of vision and Christian Eriksen is proving vital to how it all works.

(Top photo: Tom Purslow/Manchester United via Getty Images)

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