If evolution is the realistic endgame in the early phase of Erik ten Hag’s Manchester United project, a whopping 3-0 half-time lead against Liverpool in Bangkok meant the feeling was closer to revolution in this opening game of the Dutchman’s tenure.
It is not of course. And will hardly prove to be unless Ten Hag possesses the type of managerial magic Jürgen Klopp, who changed his 10 outfield players every half an hour, and Pep Guardiola possess. This was also a first pre-season match for Liverpool, and the German’s players were half-baked and sluggish in front of goal, where United excelled, in what ended as a fine 4-0 win.
The manager offered a realistic assessment. “We are satisfied today because I think that was a team [ours] with a great spirit and we know we are just starting and things went wrong,” Ten Hag said. “We made some mistakes in pressing – believe me, I have seen a lot of mistakes. We conceded some chances but also we created a tear. Our team played brave, played proactive. We have to work really hard to cut out the mistakes but we are happy with the first game.”
At a sticky though not sold-out Rajamangala Stadium this went like a dream for Ten Hag with each of United’s four strikes offering hope of a brighter future even if the rearguard remains always close to a latest farce.
Example: an Isaac Mabaya raid along the right-back’s corridor left Luke Shaw nowhere and had to be toe-poked away by David de Gea. Another: Tyler Morton, on the opposite flank, skated down the left and pinged in a ball that De Gea scuffed before Bruno Fernandes cleared.
Each of these was a quick break. United’s buildup, although slicker than last term, was closer to the geometric variety Guardiola has Manchester City executing and when they struck this was as precise as Ten Hag would like.
Jadon Sancho found Anthony Martial who fed Scott McTominay who recycled the ball. Fernandes dinked a diagonal in, Mabaya hashed his clearance and there was Sancho to finish what he started, driving beyond Alisson.
Given the first-half back four read Diogo Dalot, Raphaël Varane, Victor Lindelöf and Luke Shaw with the same two shielding players ahead McTominay and Fred, there was a definite quelle surprise feeling about how porous this unit was. Fábio Carvalho and Luis Díaz each went close in a comical red-shirt montage that featured a powder-puff McTominay header, only the goal frame stopping an equalizer.
United’s lineup could have been plucked from any outing last term that predated the January loan of Martial and missed Cristiano Ronaldo, who is not on tour. This retro feel is hardly what Ten Hag wishes but as only Tyrell Malacia has been recruited his choice was Hobson’s. The plus of this was the 52-year-old could gain a first sight of a band who failed miserably when trailing 35 points behind City, with only the reaffirmed captain, Harry Maguire, absent because of a knock.
Training on Monday evening here had been instructive. Ten Hag was relentless regarding the drilling of players, whether the activity was an oversized rondo, involving the center circle, a small-sided game or a full-blown contest of attack versus defense. Perhaps this fueled Varane and Lindelöf being up on the Liverpool 18-yard line when Fred lost the ball after some early Sancho trickery: this the highest of high presses.
Sancho was United’s sharpest performer. One behind-the-ankle trap with his other foot drew “oohs!” nor did the subsequent cross, although McTominay failed to make it two. Fred did to crown another impressive sequence. This included McTominay, Fernandes and Sancho, who dropped the ball into the area. Martial was thwarted by Joe Gomez but when possession squirted to Fred he chipped Alisson sumptuously.
It arrived on the half-hour. Klopp had made his first 10 changes and it instantly backfired as the new team (bar Alisson) were caught cold. Rhys Williams was pickpocketed by Martial and, as the keeper advanced, he was once more beaten by a United chip.
For the second half Ten Hag changed his 10 outfield men (Klopp switched Alisson for Adrián), this configuration featuring a midfielder in Donny van de Beek as a false 9; Alex Telles, a left-back at centre-back; and the debutant and left-back Malacia in his rightful position. Malacia showed razor-sharpness when nipping the ball off Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Klopp’s final constellation featured Andy Robertson, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Virgil van Dijk, Thiago Alcântara, Mohamed Salah and Darwin Núñez, making this a certifiable A-team. But it was a youngster, Tom Hill, who mugged Eric Bailly and looked to tee up Thiago before the Ivorian stabbed the ball away.
Núñez’s contribution was to draw a save from Tom Heaton and spurn a late chance but while Liverpool ended up peppering United, Salah going close, their overall report card would read “muted”.
Not so for Ten Hag and his men: their fourth came via Bailly’s dazzling footwork, which took the centre-back into the opposition half. Facundo Pellistri took over, swapped passes with Amad Diallo, and finished.
But, as the new No 1 stated, this is only the slightest of beginnings. “Liverpool plays in three teams,” Ten Hag said. “They were not at their strongest so we have to not overestimate this result. We have to be careful. But, still, I have seen some really good things and what you see is that we have a lot of creativity and speed up front, so we have potential.”