Perhaps, in the coming years, hitting the first two matches will be seen as Eric Ten Hag’s first master stroke.
The 4-0 loss to Brentford had a clear impact on the Manchester United board of directors. Suddenly the signature was not so expensive. 70 million euros for a 30-year-old defensive midfielder? 100 million euros on the Eredivisie winger? These deals only seem expensive until they reach the cost of spending a season in the tournament.
Ajax fought to keep Anthony, losing only resistance when United offered a nine-figure sum to make the 22-year-old the most expensive transfer in the summer 2022 window.
It is difficult to say whether their negotiating position reflects their confidence in his ability or their confidence that United will continue to increase their offer.
For United, the more relevant question is whether Anthony is better than Anthony Ilanga, the player he would replace in the starting line-up. He didn’t get many chances to show his quality on his debut at home, but when the big opportunity came his way, he took it up with expertise to send United on their way to an impressive victory.
United recovered from Brighton and Brentford to win four goals in a row, a feat only Arsenal have been able to achieve in the Premier League this season. There is not much mystery about the reasons for its improvement. Sometimes it’s as simple as taking the worst performers out of the team and giving someone else a chance.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s lack of dynamism has always held back the attack, while Harry Maguire’s crisis of confidence has been spreading uncertainty through the defence. United’s improvement coincides with the decision – which should have been taken by his predecessor, Ralph Rangnick – to part with the pair.
Lisandro Martinez isn’t the type of snowman who never makes a mistake, but his air of confidence and aggression is a welcome change from the defeatist situation that has gripped Maguire lately. At the other end of the field, there are encouraging signs that Marcus Rashford is winning in his long struggle against Impostor Syndrome.
Last season, he scored four goals and made two in the league in about 14 full games. Yesterday in one match he scored two goals and assisted in one. Why does Rashford play better?
The main reason, of course, is that he is now playing up front as the team’s main striker, rather than carrying the water for Ronaldo. But that’s also because United were playing the kind of football that suited him – playing on the counter and looking to launch into space behind high defensive lines.
United have played six games this season and have dominated possession only in the two games they have lost. In three of the four wins, the opponent got more ball – much more, in the case of Liverpool and Arsenal.
The truth is that playing against the ball suits United now better than trying to control matches, and Ten Hag has recognized that. So the kind of complex play that Brentford had seized was set aside, David de Gea was kicking it for a long time, and the team looked to Bruno Fernandes to open defenses with fast passes into space.
Fernandes has six crosses already, more than any other Premier League player except Kevin De Bruyne, and has been playing throughs this season at twice the average of his previous United career.
“[The coach] But this forward football now only exists in theory,” Christian Eriksen said after the match.
Ten Hag shows that he is willing to be flexible in the pursuit of results. Without wins on the board, he won’t get the time and space to build the team he wants.
The current style is in fact reminiscent of the way United played in their successful first months under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Solskjaer’s side have never developed into the kind of side that dominates rather than counterattacks – but Ten Hag has at least shown he can build such a side elsewhere.
It took Mikel Arteta two-and-a-half years to build that kind of team at Arsenal, but on Sunday, rather than asserting themselves as title contenders, his team will instead be accused of the traditional failure of falling apart before their first major challenge.
You can imagine Arteta telling his players to ‘put it in the trash, guys’ – and then lying awake all night wondering how they managed to lose. No coach will sleep if he makes a daring three-way substitution in the 74th minute and then concedes the deadly goal in the 75th minute.
Should he have been more patient and careful? It would never have happened if only his players had been more stamina. It was clear from Arteta’s post-match behavior that he thought his team should have won the match, but that’s the result that often happens when you hit the target with three out of 17 attempts.
Perhaps it would have been better for Arsenal had they not had their worst 2022-23 signature controversy so early in the game. Arteta complained that Gabriel Martinelli’s opening goal was ruled out due to Martin Odegaard’s foul on Eriksen.
Obviously the challenge was a mistake and there would be no argument for the decision – except that the umpires were putting in a great show to turn a blind eye to this kind of mistake.
Pushing someone from behind is usually a good thing – unless the referees choose this moment at random to enforce the old or “official” rules, as in the Martinelli goal. The governors seem to have thought this indiscriminate enforcement item would be a fun change, but instead many people are angry and screaming about corruption.
Really, who could have seen that coming?