After Man Utd added Tottenham to their list of ‘Big-Six’ scalps this season, is this the latest false dawn at Old Trafford or are Erik ten Hag’s side the genuine article?
Manchester United fans have been here before.
There have been countless moments and special performances, just like Wednesday’s defeat of Tottenham, which hinted at an imminent return of the glory days to Old Trafford.
But like clockwork, after each peak came an even deeper furrow. Sobering reality check after reality check saw the club stoop to new lows, breeding cynicism among a fanbase scarred for having the audacity to hope.
Erik ten Hag has not been immune from the rollercoaster ride of managing Manchester United. Three months into the job, the Dutchman has already had his fair share of ups and downs. He will likely experience many more.
A sense of trepidation persists after a decade of debacle at Old Trafford but genuine optimism continues to grow, with the multi-faceted win over Spurs – the best performance of Ten Hag’s reign to date – proof this may not be another false dawn…
Fernandes finding his feet
Bruno Fernandes celebrates after scoring Man Utd’s second goal
Bruno Fernandes drew an emphatic line under his personal frustrations at the start of the campaign.
The Portuguese registered just a goal and assist in United’s first nine Premier League games, with the captaincy appearing to weigh heavy on his shoulders as he struggled for consistency.
But Wednesday’s victory over Spurs, and specifically Fernandes’ role, was so emphatic as to suggest he may just be nearing his best form.
Fernandes doubled his season’s Premier League average for passes completed in the final third, created an almost five-fold increase in chances, almost tripled his expected assist score, took a third more touches and registered a staggering 92.6 per cent passing accuracy through the 90 minutes.
It was the kind of performance which saw Fernandes immediately endear himself to the United fans when he scored 40 goals in his first season-and-a-half at the club. If Ten Hag can get Fernandes replicating those numbers consistently, a corner will really have been turned.
Fred flourishing in front of Casemiro
Through no fault of his own, Fred came to symbolise an era where Manchester United just couldn’t compete with their big rivals. Years of underinvestment left the club woefully short in the biggest of moments, and the Brazilian was rather unfairly often blamed.
After years of neglecting United’s desperate need for reinforcements in central midfield, this summer’s arrival of compatriot Casemiro has lightened the defensive load on Fred, freeing him to have a more noticeable influence in the opposition half, as was the case against Tottenham.
Fred’s deflected opener was the forerunner for a dominant second-half attacking display in which he was heavily involved in, marauding into the final third at will and having a hand in Fernandes’ game-clinching second.
It was a timely reminder of the wealth of talent United have within their squad, talent which, for a multitude of reasons, has not had the freedom to flourish. Casemiro’s defence-first mindset coupled with the midfield fluidity Ten Hag so craves could see the rebirth of Fred.
Ten Hag rising to Old Trafford occasion
Ten Hag has only been at Old Trafford a matter of months but has got the home support onside with performances and victories against the Premier League’s biggest opposition.
On Wednesday, United clinched their fourth consecutive victory over Spurs for the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson was manager, as Antonio Conte’s side joined Liverpool and Arsenal in coming up short at Old Trafford.
Victories over Arsenal and Spurs handed Ten Hag two home wins against sides starting the day in the Premier League’s top three, equalling the tally recorded by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ralf Rangnick just 10 games into his tenure.
Ten Hag has made immediate progress in restoring Old Trafford’s fortress-like status against ‘Big-Six’ opposition, outperforming almost all key attacking metrics this season compared to last.
After humbling defeats at Brentford and Manchester City and with a trip to Chelsea up next, United still have work to do when it comes to taking their Old Trafford form on the road but, as Tottenham will attest, they are building into a formidable opponent.
Man Utd running more without Ronaldo
Manchester United have run 10km less per game when Ronaldo has started in the Premier League this season.
Ronaldo earned his first league start of the campaign in the shock 4-0 defeat at Brentford in August – playing the full 90 minutes.
Ten Hag’s side covered just 95.5km collectively that day – only Fulham have run less in a match this term, against Newcastle earlier this month. The Bees covered 13.8km more than United, prompting Ten Hag to order his team to run that very same distance in training the following day.
The Dutchman benched Ronaldo for the following six league games but handed him a second, and most recent start, in the goalless draw with Newcastle earlier this month. In that game, United registered their second-lowest distance this season at 101.5km, with the Portugal forward being hooked off on 72 minutes with 7.3km covered.
Effectively, United have covered 10 per cent less distance when Ronaldo has lined up in the starting XI this term – a disparity which might have contributed to his dwindling game time.
By contrast, in Ronaldo’s absence Marcus Rashford has already covered more distance in Premier League games on average than in the previous three.
With Ten Hag demanding more dynamism from his attacking players and Rashford executing that brief to a tee, it would appear United’s preparations for life without Ronaldo are already in full flow.