On Wednesday night at Old Trafford, Erik ten Hag’s Manchester United was first realized.
His teammates completely outplayed Tottenham Hotspur and gave a preview of what might be to come by working in whirling synchronization.
United defended and attacked as a unit, pressing high at the front and high at the back and capitalizing on the energy in the fans. Each significant event on the field elicited a piercing reaction from the crowd, and that energy appeared to transfer as though by osmosis to Ten Hag’s team’s leg muscles.
Luke Shaw pushed into a 50-50 challenge with Lucas Moura in the 91st minute, won the ball, and then dribbled up the touchline. Despite coming on nine minutes earlier than the other player, Moura appeared to be more worn out.
Despite Spurs’ best-ever Premier League season start under Antonio Conte, United’s performance last night sapped their motivation. Conte said it fairly neatly: “We have to be honest; United decided to win.”
The most shots of any Premier League team this year came from United in the first 45 minutes with 19. The highest first-half total recorded by Opta since records first began to be kept in 2003-04 was fourteen of them coming from outside the box. They had taken 28 shots by the time the game was through, which is also the most of any Premier League club this year. The previous record for United was 17 versus Brighton. After 30 minutes versus Spurs, they had reached that total.
More shots were taken by United players than by Harry Kane, who led Spurs with three. Marcus Rashford, Fred (age six), Antony, Diogo Dalot, and Bruno Fernandes (all four).
This game served as proof that Casemiro and compatriot Fred can be a strong midfield duo when playing certain opponents.
With Scott McTominay and Christian Eriksen back after the weekend’s stalemate with Newcastle, Fred was a surprise choice to keep his spot, but Ten Hag’s faith was rewarded with quite probably his best game in the more than four years he has spent at United.
In contrast, Casemiro delivered a nearly perfect performance while seated.
He displayed his physicality, detected threats, and skillfully kept possession. His forceful first-time pass to Antony, who scored a goal to double the advantage, turned defense into attack.
He believed that the standing ovation he received upon replacing Eriksen in the 87th minute was a significant development.
In the news conference prior to the game, Ten Hag firmly defended his captain, Fernandes, who has recently come under fire for his performances.
“He is playing a massive role in a lot of moments for us in building up, creativity and movement, but also transition; both sides,” the United manager said.
This was a show to support Ten Hag’s assessment.
Fernandes generated nine opportunities, which is the highest in a Premier League game since September of last year. Despite taking risks, he had a passing success percentage of 92.65%, which is significantly higher than is customary for him.
Of course, he scored a fantastic goal, but just as significant was his contribution to the game’s negative aspects.
In order to set up Fred’s opening goal, Fernandes ran after an errant pass from Lisandro Martinez to pursue Son Heung-min. Later in the same play, he also intercepted a pass from Eric Dier before Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg.
Varane was so confident that Martinez would be covering that at one point in the game, he followed Kane all the way to the Tottenham defensive third. The midfielder from Argentina kept a tight eye on the England captain and jumped in just before halftime as Kane attempted to pivot to gain possession of the ball on halfway.
On either side, the full-backs provided protection. Shaw and Dalot were both top-notch. Only Martinez (also five and two) could match Shaw’s winning and losing duels ratios of seven and three, while Dalot’s were five and two.