Buidling Dreams Together

How Erik ten Hag can take encouragement from defeat

The Red Devils succumbed to Arsenal pressure in the dying seconds, but in the midst of the chaos, a spirited away performance offers a glimmer of reassurance.

Credit: https://www.manutd.com

Heading into the September international break, it’s hard to see Manchester United’s start to the 23/24 campaign as anything less than patchy. An extremely unconvincing win against relegation-tipped Wolves and a narrow Nottingham Forest comeback were accompanied by 2 goal defeats to both North London clubs.

To make matters worse, drama in the dressing room appears to be back in the fray. Jadon Sancho released a statement regarding Ten Hag’s comments about the England international not being selected due to his performances in training. United fans are aware of how their Dutch boss deals with dissent, after Cristiano Ronaldo was released from the club last season.

Concerns appear to be mounting in the red half of Manchester, with this chaos unfolding in the same week the Glazers announced they’re taking the club off the market.

Fortunately, the Sancho situation is less likely to be blown out of proportion. Based on both his and Ten Hag’s statements, it seems like a non-issue. Sancho wasn’t selected for his performance, but his tweet seems to suggest his attitude was being questioned. Given the fact that it wasn’t, there is a relatively easy solution to this mini-drama – a discussion between player and manager on the nature of the misunderstanding.

There are also some underlying signs of encouragement from the defeat at Arsenal. Which Ten Hag rightly acknowledged: “I’m here with a good feeling, because our performance was good.” He referred specifically to United’s calmness in possession, compactness and threat on the counter.

It was a spirited away display, against an Arsenal side expecting to compete for top honours this season. They posed a threat on the counter, and had a late winner narrowly ruled out; all of this with the absence of Varane, Mount, Amrabat, and later Martinez and Lindelof.

This was also the game where we saw the Onana effect at its most pronounced. Arsenal were forced to allow United to have the ball in their own half, as pressing is made much more difficult by the presence of a goalkeeper who effectively operates as another outfielder in build-up. Onana had his highest number of touches in this match; taking the pressure off the centre-backs and allowing United to post 45% of overall possession – a higher percentage than in either fixture last season.

Furthermore, Rasmus Højlund was introduced for the last 20 minutes, and showed promising glimpses of the physicality and threat he can bring to the team. United were able to pump the ball long to him and watch him scuffle with Gabriel, second balls in the final third suddenly became accessible and United posed a real threat before the game was snatched from their grasp.

With the big Dane back to full fitness, United will have the focal point up front they’ve desperately lacked in the opening games, when the Premier League returns in a fortnight.

Looking at their opening four games, it’s clear United do have something to work with. They lost to both ‘big seven’ teams they’ve played, but their next five don’t include any of these teams (though they face Brighton), and three of them are at home. By the time they face City on the 27th October, the picture for the Red Devils could be totally different.

It’s worth remembering how shocking their start to last season was, a season that brought Champions League football and silverware back to Old Trafford.

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