Reporting from Bangkok
SINGAPORE — The Erik ten Hag era at Manchester United got off to a highly encouraging start on Tuesday (12 July), as the Red Devils began their Asia Pacific pre-season tour with 4-0 rout of arch-rivals Liverpool at Bangkok's Rajamangala Stadium.
After stumbling through the ill-fated tenures of their last two managers, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and interim Ralf Rangnick, this newest version of Man United attacked with purpose and defended with intensity rarely seen in the past season, in which they came in sixth - their worst finish in the English Premier League (EPL) history.
And they duly got the ideal, morale-boosting result against a lacklustre Liverpool, whose players looked as if they are still shaking off the rustiness after returning from their holidays barely a week ago.
The real test will come when the two sides meet again next month in a proper EPL competitive tie at Old Trafford. Indeed, while ten Hag was satisfied with the win, he said that there are still plenty of mistakes amid his team.
"We made some mistakes in pressing – believe me, I have seen a lot of mistakes," he said in the post-match media conference.
"We conceded some chances but also we created a lot. 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.”
What is perhaps more important is that their legion of fans in Thailand were sent home happy, and most are probably convinced that their new manager is worth getting behind for. And that could ease off a lot of pressure on both ten Hag and his players as they refine their playing style during the upcoming EPL season.
Early high pressing leads to defensive errors and goals
Having had nearly two weeks of pre-season training prior to the Bangkok match, ten Hag was able to field a strong starting line-up with Jadon Sancho, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford leading the attack and Bruno Fernandes supporting them from midfield.
By contrast, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp - mindful not to over-exert his charges so early in their pre-season - changed his 10 outfield players every half an hour, with every batch a mishmash of established stars and promising youngsters.
And while the Reds still threatened occasionally - Luis Diaz seeing his curling shot palmed away by Man United goalkeeper David de Gea and Roberto Firmino hitting the post with another attempt - their raw youths gave Man United chances to exploit their inexperience.
And the Red Devils got their reward early. In the 12th minute, a dangerous-looking cross from Fernandes came to Liverpool's 17-year-old right-back Isaac Mabaya. The teenager flubbed his clearance, and Sancho was on hand to punish him as he slammed home past Alisson Becker for a 1-0 lead.
With United playing with a very high defensive line - a hallmark of ten Hag's playing philosophy which he had employed with success in his previous club Ajax Amsterdam - they hounded the Reds into hasty clearances that allowed them to regain possession high up the field.
This led to United's second goal in the 29th minute, when Brazilian midfielder Fred took advantage of another botched Liverpool clearance to lob the ball over his compatriot Alisson, much to the wild delight of the United fans amid the 50,248 crowd.
Klopp had seen enough and made his first wholesale change on the 30-minute mark, in hopes of invigorating his squad to reduce the deficit. Instead, it backfired almost instantaneously, as Martial showed why he could be in for a revival after a poor 2021/22 season when he pressed centre-back Rhys Williams into losing possession in the 32nd minute, and advanced swiftly to slot the ball home past Alisson.
Optimism abounds among United fans
Three-nil up before half-time against last season's domestic Cup double winners, and buoyant United fans could be forgiven in thinking that their beloved team had avenged last season's embarrassing 0-5 and 0-4 EPL defeats by their fierce rivals. Some were even singing in jest that United are going to win the league again.
The more realistic assessment is that they are now playing as a cohesive unit, pinging passes quickly and accurately as they bring the ball forward. It was a far cry again from last season, when they were content on lumping the ball towards Cristiano Ronaldo and hoping that the club legend could conjure a goal from nowhere.
Ronaldo has skipped this Asia Pacific tour amid his bombshell announcement last week that he wishes to leave the club. Judging by United's emphatic response amid his absence, it is clear that ten Hag has sent a message to his wayward superstar that he will not be missed if he gets his exit wish.
Meanwhile, Klopp finally sent on his team's resident superstar Mohamed Salah in his second wholesale line-up change in the 60th minute, along with new €75 million (S$106.2 million) signing Darwin Nunez. By now, Man United had swopped their first-half key players with their own youngsters such as Charlie Savage, Zidane Iqbal and Facundo Pellistri, and Liverpool fans rose in expectation that their team could make a rousing comeback.
Instead, it was United who added a fourth, as Pellistri started and finished a swift counter-attack with aplomb in the 76th minute. With Salah hitting the post with a curling shot, and Nunez sending the rebound way over the net in the closing stages, United fans were finally able to enjoy a perfect night for their new manager in Bangkok.
Han Keong's trip is hosted by Manchester United's official spirits partner, Chivas Regal.
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