Over the summer, Erik ten Hag made some big calls. He announced that Harry Maguire would retain the captaincy. He announced that Cristiano Ronaldo was going to be central to his attack. And then, come the third game of the season, there they were on the bench: captain and legend; dressing-room leaders; dropped.
Good managers aren’t afraid to make big calls. But very good managers aren’t afraid to look at their own big calls, then hurl them straight into the bin and make some others. Ten Hag didn’t just drop Maguire and Ronaldo. He also dropped the Ten Hag of a couple of months ago. What was that fool even thinking?
That said, you couldn’t call either decision strange.
Maguire hasn’t looked right for a good long while, as captain or as defender. On the other hand, Ronaldo is actively trying to leave the club. But even so, it made something of a change to see Manchester United operating not according to the principles of reputation or celebrity or status, but by clear-headed, cold-hearted footballing logic.
The most shocking thing about United’s defeat to Brentford wasn’t the short passing out from the back, or the marking, or the sight of Lisandro Martínez getting thrown around like Randall Curtis in the Simpsons. It was the collective mental collapse that came when David De Gea shovelled in the first goal and United lost all capacity to think. As a problem, it looked chronic; it looked like it would take months if not years to unpick.
Then fast forward nine days and the same players – almost – were tearing into their opponents. Focussed pressing, smart passing, playing to a plan and buying into a project. Jadon Sancho, calm and collected, shuffling the ball back and forth like that Sancho lad who used to play in the Bundesliga. Marcus Rashford, breaking the line and finishing like that Rashford lad who used to play for England. Bruno Fernandes didn’t score – in fact, he came closest to putting the ball into his own net. But for the first time in a while, he was more of an irritant to the opposition than to his own cause.
Would it be too simplistic to suggest that the removal of Ronaldo meant United’s other attacking players were suddenly delivered of both clarity of thought and lightness of spirit? Because that’s exactly what it looked like. Erik ten Hag took away the big question and suddenly the answers were all there.
The same at the back. Before the game, Ten Hag said that he wanted communication, mobility and agility from his defenders, and even the most devoted Maguire supporter would have to admit that he’s been lacking in all three departments. So in came Raphaël Varane, and suddenly the conversation was flowing and Martínez was transformed from comedy figure to cult hero. Take away the question, find the answer.
Again, perhaps all that happened last night was that Erik ten Hag picked the best players in the best positions for the best plan he could come up with, then wound them up and watched them go. It’s a simple game.
But at a club as fundamentally muddled and misaligned as Manchester United, even that represents progress. And the fact that it came off has given Ten Hag the two most precious resources any manager could ask for: time and buy-in. If he can persuade United to take to the ordinary games – like Southampton next Saturday lunchtime – with the same intensity they showed here, things might just work out nicely.